Tanzania versus Kenya: A tale of two countries’ approaches to a pandemic

Friday January 28 2022

Perspectives on the spread of Covid-19. GRAPHICS | THE EASTAFRICAN


Over the past few weeks, the Omicron variant of Covid-19 has spread to almost every corner of the world. Experts are balancing between the potential relief of a seemingly milder variant of the virus and the need to encourage people to continue with protective measures and to get vaccinated.

In East Africa, citizens are keen to get back to life as usual. In this context, we use citizens’ perspectives to compare the approaches to the pandemic adopted by Kenya and Tanzania.


Kenya and Tanzania responded very differently in 2020 to the coronavirus pandemic. For the first few weeks, both followed similar patterns, largely in line with World Health Organisation advice — some restrictions on travel and social activity, mask wearing, and scaling up testing and medical services. Both countries reported daily on new case numbers. But from May 2020 onwards, their paths diverged considerably, and a natural experiment in how to manage a pandemic in East Africa was born.

President Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya doubled down on an open, direct fight against Covid-19, communicating often and adding financial support programmes to help people weather the storm. In Tanzania, President John Magufuli saw things differently.

He publicly dismissed the virus as a foreign effort to undermine the country, promoted untested traditional remedies, actively undermined confidence in diagnostic tests, and eventually declared victory over the virus. Later in 2020, when vaccines became available, he said they could not be trusted, and Tanzanians had no need for them.


But this changed with the arrival of President Samia Suluhu, who took over after Magufuli died in March 2021. President Samia has encouraged mask wearing, testing and public reporting of case numbers. Crucially, she also reversed the government’s stance on Covid vaccines by joining the Covax initiative and welcoming vaccines into the country.

The full health, social and economic toll of the pandemic will not be known for some time to come. Nevertheless, we are increasingly able to assess how well different countries have been able to respond. Indeed, we at Twaweza have collected data throughout the pandemic – that can help us understand the differences between Kenya and Tanzania’s responses, and some of the consequences of different strategies chosen. Three sets of findings are revealing.

Public health messaging

First, the data documents some immediate consequences of the different responses in the first part of the pandemic. For example, by July 2021, Kenyan households were four times as likely as Tanzanian household to have someone who had taken a Covid-19 test (36 percent in Kenya, 9 percent in Tanzania). Similarly, while almost all Kenyans (98 percent) say they have a reasonably good understanding of the virus, in Tanzania the figure is substantially lower (71 percent).

This may be linked to the prevalence of Covid-related media coverage and public health messaging: the proportion of Tanzanians seeing such messages has nearly doubled from 37 percent in August 2020 to 67 percent a year later, but remains lower than the equivalent figures in Kenya throughout the pandemic (70-80 percent).

Interestingly, the number in Tanzania with a reasonable understanding of the virus was lower in August 2021 than 12 months earlier (down to 71 percent from 80 percent). Yes, they are hearing more about the virus in 2021, but understand it less than they did in 2020. This means some Tanzanians previously thought they understood the virus but recently realised they had things wrong.

Fear factor

There are also clear differences in the intensity of preventive measures being taken by citizens, including social distancing and mask wearing. Both are reported as the norm in Kenya, but as relatively rare in Tanzania.

Self-reported behaviour data can be unreliable, but this does suggest strongly that Kenyans recognise that wearing a mask and avoiding unnecessary contact are beneficial – the right thing to do – while Tanzanians are more doubtful.

Second, it’s worth recalling that President Magufuli also emphasised the importance of avoiding fear, concerned that the economic and social costs of shutting down the country could outweigh the health costs of the virus. This too is reflected in the data.

In mid-2020, just 26 percent of Tanzanians said they were “worried” about the state of the pandemic, compared with more than three-quarters (79 percent) of Kenyans. The figure in Kenya has remained high through 2021, but Tanzania has seen a big change: from 26 percent to 76 percent by August 2021.

Similarly, six out of ten Tanzanians in August 2020 said the government was responding appropriately to the pandemic. This declined to four in 10 in August 2021, similar to the figures seen in Kenya throughout (32 to 39 percent). Confidence in the government’s ability to handle the pandemic has also fallen in Tanzania, from 67 percent to 45 percent.

Vaccine acceptance

The third area to highlight is perhaps the most significant: vaccine acceptance. It is worth noting that in both countries, awareness of vaccines against Covid-19 is very high: over 90 percent. There is a substantial difference however in vaccine willingness — the number who say they would be willing to take a vaccine against Covid-19. In Kenya, three-quarters of citizens (76 percent) say they would be happy to do this, compared with 54 percent in Tanzania.

This could be a consequence of the Tanzanian government’s widely reported initially sceptical view on vaccines that was widely reported within the country. It is a tough job for any government to convince citizens that what the government said a few months ago was wrong, and what it says now is right.

It could potentially also have serious consequences. Fortunately, the data we have can also offer clues on how to encourage greater vaccine acceptance. First, few people actively believe the conspiracy theories around vaccines but many are unsure. Second, those who get their news mainly from social media are more likely to be hesitant about vaccines.

And third, vaccine-hesitant Tanzanians are more likely to trust medical professionals than the government. The best approach, therefore, is a campaign, led by medics, involving both mainstream and social media channels, to persuade people that vaccines are safe and effective.

Aidan Eyakuze is the executive director, Twaweza