DAR ES SALAAM, TANZANIA - Tanzania's President John Magufuli appears to be acknowledging the problem of COVID-19 in the country, after months of claiming the virus had been defeated through prayer and steam treatments. While not specifically naming the virus, Magufuli on Sunday urged Tanzanians to begin wearing face masks for "respiratory" illnesses that are becoming a problem.
It is almost a year since Magufuli declared his country to be free from COVID-19 and said prayer helped to defeat the virus.
But on a Sunday church mass in the capital Dodoma, Magufuli urged citizens to take precautions including traditional remedies and wear face masks - but only locally made ones.
We should take health precautions as it was announced, Magufuli said. He said we should put God first, while searching for an alternative, in line with steam inhalation. He said that his own children got sick, some of his little ones got sick and they recovered. It's all about putting God first, he said, adding that steam inhalation should not be ignored.
At the end of last week, Magufuli called on citizens for three days of prayer to defeat unnamed respiratory diseases amid warnings from the Catholic church, the U.S. embassy and others that Tanzania is seeing a deadly resurgence in coronavirus infections.
Tanzanians such as Baraka Kila found President's remarks unsettling.
Kila says at first they were convinced that it really did not exist. But looking at social networks like Twitter and Facebook, various people were posting about deaths caused by a coronavirus and it was causing a lot of controversies and the government disagreed. To a large extent, he says, we must continue to believe that some of the deaths that occurred were caused by COVID-19. We are scared because when the president admits the existence of coronavirus, it means it has spread a lot, adds Kila.
Recho Nzengo, a student at the University of Dar es Salaam, says the move will awaken those who were not taking the virus seriously in Tanzania.
After the president spoke, she thinks Tanzanians will start to protect themselves. She says that people have been squeezing into community buses without taking precautions. Nzengo adds that she thinks it's a good thing that yesterday Magufuli talked; people will start to protect themselves because we see people dying every day and they say that there is no disease.
Maguful spoke after the death of the vice president of the Zanzibar region, Seif Sharif Hamad. Hamad's death drew widespread attention after his party said he had died of COVID-19.
Tanzania has refused to track coronavirus cases, so there are no figures on how many people have fallen ill or died from the virus. However, other East African countries have experienced thousands of cases, and there is no reason to think Tanzania has been spared.
The president's speech may change people's perceptions and prompt doubters of COVID-19 to take serious precautions for the first time.