Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu on Thursday defended her country’s initial slow response to fighting Covid-19, arguing that leaders were grappling with balancing between protecting people from the pandemic and ensuring they could still earn a living.
In an inaugural address to the UN General Assembly, President Samia promised to bring Tanzania back into the international fold, breaking with her predecessor John Pombe Magufuli’s record of bickering with donors.
She spoke at the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, marking history as the first female Tanzanian President to ever do so. And she used the occasion to explain how her country has battled Covid-19.
“At the onset of Covid-19, we in Tanzania were stuck in the twilights of protecting lives and protecting livelihoods,” she said without elaborating the period in question.
“Measures advocated by the World Health Organization (WHO) were gearing towards protecting lives. However, in an economy like Tanzania, consisting of a bigger proportion of people living on subsistence economy whom we need to keep afloat, my country adopted all necessary measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, including joining the Covax facility to ensure that Tanzania gains access to Covid-19 vaccine.”
While her administration has imposed tough measures to curb the spread of the virus, it wasn’t until she took over power after the death of President Magufuli that Tanzania actually signed up for Covax, the facility that the WHO and partners have used to distribute Covid-19 vaccines to developing countries.
President Magufuli spoke out about his doubts on the quality of imported masks as well as testing kits, at one time declaring a piece of goat, and a papaya had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Magufuli also refused to lock down the country as neighbours did and decided against joining Covax. He also refused to make public data on Covid-19 infections.
President Samia presented a different approach, and began to work towards preventing spread of Covid-19.
“Tanzania will continue to be a formidable defender of multilateralism. We will continue to embrace those who embrace us, and engage with us,” she told the audience.
She promised that Tanzania will continue to honour its obligations under international law, including those on human rights and gender.
“Aware of the nexus between economic growth and governance, we managed to maintain peace, political stability with a vibrant democracy and institutionalised good practices, upholding rule of law and human rights,” she said.
However, critics say she has gone back to some of the old practices after opposition leaders were recently arrested and detained on charges they claim are political.
In New York, President Samia did not refer to any incidents or even the period. She admitted that the weight of achieving gender parity is now “heavier on my shoulders” as the first female president, and promised to ensure sufficient laws to support women and girls during her tenure.
Her country, like others in the region, used the occasion to rally for vaccine distribution equity, saying no one in the world will be safe from Covid-19 unless all people are vaccinated.
“The level of vaccine inequity that we see is appalling. It is truly disheartening to see that while most of our countries have inoculated less than 2 percent of the populace...other countries are about to roll out the third dose.
“We tend to forget that nobody is safe until everybody is safe. It is indispensable that countries with extra vaccine doses share them with other countries.”
And with the distribution of vaccines falling behind the spread of the virus, President Samia said a solution to Africa’s low rates of inoculation lies in removing legal restrictions to enable Africans produce the doses themselves.
“Developing nations must be assisted in addressing the socio-economic impact of Covid-19. We cannot afford to take refuge on the onset of Covid-19 as an excuse on not making progress in achieving SDGs.
“It is important that the patent rights on Covid-19 vaccines should be waived for developing countries so that they can afford to produce the vaccines. This is not only necessary to end the pandemic but also the right thing to do.”