Even as East African countries restricted movement and public gatherings in response to the rising number of Covid-19 cases, Tanzania has been the regional outlier, adopting a more relaxed posture toward the threat.
At one point, President John Pombe Magufuli publicly questioned the necessity of measures such as bans on public gatherings and partial lockdowns that have been employed elsewhere in the region.
President Magufuli’s stance does not necessarily mean that his government is not doing anything to contain spread of the coronavirus. It could just be a reflection of the difference between a leader who still subscribes to the belief that the State should not be the source of unnecessary alarm, and those who see information as a key tool in empowering citizens to adopt behaviour that minimises their exposure to risk.
This is pretty much what the World Health Organisation has been saying in its communications with member states.
The WHO advises that stopping the spread of Covid-19 will be achieved faster when governments take actions that limit and then break the transmission chain.
This can only be achieved by taking actions that limit movement and contact between people. Such measures are the cornerstone of an effective emergency response strategy to the current threat.
In the context of cost and yield, the wanting capacities of the global health system that have been exposed by the suffering in the Northern hemisphere, lockdowns are the cheapest and most efficient interventions.
Of course every country has had to adapt its own unique approach to the threat but there are certain constants. For example, Germany and South Korea have seen the disease take a different trajectory, despite being near high caseload countries, because of deploying mass testing and admitting the infected into early institutional care. For Tanzania and East Africa in general, these capacities are lacking.
If Italy, Spain and the US demonstrate anything, it is how deadly and devastating it can be for those countries that underestimate the danger of this invisible enemy that only manifests through mind-numbing suffering and fatalities.
Tanzania needs to demonstrate that it is listening to the WHO. Its efforts in triggering an emergency response mechanism, stopping public gatherings and redirecting government resources to implement a mechanism for testing, isolating and treating the sick needs to be more visible.
The experience of countries such as Uganda reinforces the need for a decentralised, if centrally co-ordinated response. Until first responders and front line medical staff feel that they are sufficiently protected from the risk of infection, they will be reluctant to handle suspect cases.
The WHO recommends that all public health authorities and first line responders should be equipped with capacity to diagnose cases, medical supplies and personal protective equipment.
Lastly, where extreme measures have been taken to try and flatten the curve of Covid-19 early in the epidemic, a relaxed approach is a worrying thought. Leaving people free to move about increases the risk of community spread and creates reservoirs from which a secondary outbreak could spring and push back the region.
It also sets the stage for staggered progress in containing the outbreak, raising the spectre of prolonged pain as parts of the regional economy remain barricaded from the rest.