“Homa Kali” – Deaths, fear and the renaming of Tanzania’s COVID-19 pandemic

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Perhaps the most succinct way to describe Tanzania’s COVID-19 pandemic and how it has been treated might not be to look at the facts, but look at what isn’t being said about the virus and its fallout. Events occurring at the time of publishing of this article speak volumes to the blanket of silence that is slowly being pulled away, uncovering what may be a very serious situation in East Africa’s most populous country. Africa Uncensored data reporter Moffin Njoroge used social media posts to read between the lines of official speak in Tanzania.

On Wednesday,10th March, media reports emerged that an African leader, presumed to be Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli had been admitted at the Nairobi Hospital with COVID-19. An unnamed opposition leader told the publication that the said leader had been on a ventilator before being moved to Nairobi.

Speculations on President Magufuli’s health rose after Tundu Lissu, the Tanzanian opposition leader, questioned the President’s whereabouts after being out of the limelight for over 2 weeks. In a tweet on 9th February, he went on to lament the secrecy on the President’s health citing previous cases of former presidents Jakaya Kikwete, Benjamin Mkapa and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, whose condition and treatments abroad were announced to the country.

On Friday 19th February, President Magufuli announced that Tanzania would be holding 3 days of national prayers over the COVID-19 pandemic.

This comes on the heels of high-profile deaths reported in the country that are suspected to be as a result of complications emanating from COVID-19.

It has been over10 months since Tanzania last publicly released any data on how the pandemic is affecting Tanzania.

In the absence of official numbers, it is hard to ascertain the true extent of the spread of the disease in the expansive East African country.

However, a look at social media postings from within the country, though limited, offers us a glimpse of what’s going on.

Words

With doctors not being allowed to mention the term “COVID-19”, the diagnosis being referred to in seeming cases of COVID-19 is viral pneumonia or atypical pneumonia. The tough crackdown on media and vocal social media users by President Magufuli’s government has led to the adoption of different terms such as changamoto za kupumua, matatizo ya kupumua, shida ya kupumua, changamoto ya kupumua (variations of the term “breathing difficulties), homa kali (a serious cold) and nyumonia (pneumonia), all allegedly codewords for COVID-19.

Using the above terms, we were able to collect 1,586 tweets between February 11th and February 19th, 2021. The tweets show an alarming death rate of high-profile Tanzanians in January and February with a majority of these deaths resulting from respiratory complications. The network diagram of the collected tweets shows the most outspoken people about COVID-19 are former politicians, opposition politicians, activists and journalists.

The biggest dots in the diagram representing Twitter users with the highest interactions around the keywords include Professor Mark James Mwandosya, a former MP and Minister of Transport and Communication, Maria Sarungi Tsehai the director and founder of Change Tanzania, a social movement, Millard Ayo, an award-winning journalist and Kigogo, who also goes by the alias ‘Spear of the Nation’, an activist and founder of Fichua Tanzania.

Professor Mwandosya’s Twitter account has become the go-to place for many after he began posting obituaries of high-profile Tanzanians, friends and family since late December 2020.

A word cloud generated for the 60 most popular terms shows that the top phrase is Changamoto ya kupumua which translates to breathing difficulties, followed by Shida ya kupumua which is synonymous with the first phrase.

The third and fourth most frequent words, “kwa jina jingine” and “jina jingine corona” seem to be part of a single phrase, “kwa jina jingine corona” which translates to: “in other words corona”.

Deaths

Reports of prominent COVID-19 related deaths began circulating on Twitter and on media outlets in mid-January with the deaths increasing in February. On January 17, popular Tanzanian artiste Ilunga Khalifa alias Cpwaa passed away while receiving treatment at the Muhimbili National Hospital in Dar es Salaam. His father reported that Ilunga had been suffering from pneumonia.

Three days later, deputy commissioner of prisons Julius Sang’uti died at Benjamin Mkapa Hospital in Dodoma while receiving treatment. His death was shortly followed by Special Seats (CCM) MP Martha Umbula on the same day while receiving treatment in India.

On January 21, the death of seasoned writer and political analyst Prudence Karugendo was reported. This was followed by the death of former Kigoma Regional Commissioner Emanuel Maganga at Mirambo Hospital in Tabora and Bukoba Catholic Bishop, Ireneus Mbahulira who died at Muguna Hospital.

A report by Helsinki-based investigative initiative Sauti Kubwa said that 5 retired army generals lost their lives in less than two weeks after getting acute pneumonia (nyumonia kali). Rtd. Brigadier General Emmanuel Maganga who was Kigoma’s Provincial Commissioner died on January 22 while receiving treatment at Lugalo Military Hospital in Dar es Salaam. His death was followed by that of Rtd. Brigadier General Martin Likubuka Mwankanye at the same facility on January 29.

A day after, on January 30, Rtd. Brigadier General Matata Juma Mang’wamba passed away while undergoing treatment at Cardinal Rugambwa Hospital, Ukonga, in Dar es Salaam. On February 1, Rtd. Brigadier General Abdallah Mwemnjudi died at Lugalo Military Hospital in Dar es Salaam. He was a former Operations and Training Officer of the Tanzania Navy.

On February 3, Rtd. Brigadier General Ezra Wilson Ndimgwango passed away at Lugalo Military Hospital in Dar es Salaam and was buried 2 days later at the Air Wing Cemetery in Ukonga.

Apart from the 5 retired senior Generals, the other notable death in the military was that of Rtd. Colonel Faustine Itangaja a former head of Military Police who died on January 22 at Muhimbili National Hospital.

It is not only the armed forces that have been hit critically by deaths. The country’s legal sector has also lost 9 lawyers within a period of 40 days. The president of the Tanganyika Law Society Dr Rugemeleza Nshala said that more than 10 members had succumbed in 45 days between late December 2020 and early February.

The most shocking of these deaths was that of Zanzibar’s First Vice President, Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad on February 17 while receiving treatment at Muhimbili National Hospital. He was admitted at Mnazi Mmoja Hospital on February 1 after admitting he had tested positive for COVID-19 with his wife being in isolation. He became the first person to publicly reveal their COVID-19 status in Tanzania since President Maghufuli declared the country coronavirus-free in April 2020.

Other deaths include that of former MP Gregory Teu who passed away on 25th January at a hospital in Tanzania while receiving treatment. He was also a former deputy minister in the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

On February 10, Professor Mark James Mwandosya tweeted about the death of Christopher Thomas Mullemwah, former Councillor of Kyela District Council. Professor Mwandosya and journalist Millard Ayo have been continually updating people of the deaths on their Twitter accounts. Other deaths include:

  • Mohammed Seif Khatib a former Minister of Home Affairs and MP for Uzini in Zanzibar died on February 15 in Unguja.
  • Kwame Daftari, Director of District Council, Korogwe District passed away on February 16 at the TMJ Hospital in Dar es Salaam.
  • Namibia’s third secretary to Tanzania Selina Tjihero passed away on February 16 with Namibia’s ambassador to Tanzania Lebbeus Tobias confirming her death. The Namibian reported that they had been reliably informed by high-ranking officials in the diplomatic circles that Tjihero died of COVID-19.
  • Ambassador John William Kijazi, Tanzania’s Chief Secretary died on February 17 at the Benjamin Mkapa Hospital in Dodoma according to a statement by State House’s Director of Presidential Communication Gerson Msigwa.
  • Vedasto Msungu, a journalist with ITV and Radio One Stereo died on February 17 at the Morogoro Regional Referral Hospital while receiving treatment.

A pandemic of silence

A Tanzanian journalist based in Dar es Salaam says that since the country stopped reporting COVID-19 numbers, the media has been banned from reporting about COVID-19 with some of his colleagues and activists arrested and serving short prison terms. Others got off with fines. The journalist, who does not wish to reveal his identity, says he recently lost an uncle who was a high-ranking officer in the army to the disease.

With a majority of Tanzanians still very trusting of Magufuli with the last credible opinion poll in July 2018 showing his popularity at 55%, life has continued as usual, he says, with few members of the public wearing masks. Most people have been using local herbs and inhalants as directed by the Ministry of Health. He further goes on to add that sporting activities have continued uninterrupted. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League match between local club Simba SC and Al Ahly SC of Egypt held at the Benjamin Mkapa National Stadium on February 23 hosted 30,000 fans, with no room for social distancing.

They seem to be buoyed by their president’s own actions. President Magufuli continues to shun protective measures such as lockdowns and the wearing of masks, even as reports seem to indicate a rise in COVID-19 related deaths. Tanzania, it seems, will not be embarking on a mass vaccination campaign, sticking to its earlier position that it will be rejecting COVID-19 vaccines. The World Health Organisation’s head in Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti said on January 28 that they were in touch with Tanzanian officials, urging that the country should implement prevention protocols and prepare for vaccinations.

With global fears of the spread of new variants of COVID-19, the pandemic of silence that has Tanzania in its grips is perhaps even more dangerous than the pandemic itself. Africans know only too well, with the high cost that was paid because of silence and stigma with the emergence of HIV in the 1980s. Can the man whose iron will has become law in Tanzania since his election buckle, or can Tanzania fight the pandemic with herbs, prayer and silence? Only bookmakers would be happy with those odds.

We sought comments from the Tanzanian High Commission in Kenya but our queries remain unanswered as of the time of publication.

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Moffin Njoroge

Moffin is passionate about data and strives to find patterns, stories and leads by analyzing and interpreting datasets.