On February 2, the Minister of Health of Tanzania announced that the country “Does not intend to accept the vaccines COVID-19 “ because it had not yet been “clinically proven that these vaccines are safe.” It was not a novelty in the strict sense: the Tanzanian President, John Magufuli, declared the country free from COVID-19 due to God’s intervention in June after weeks without publishing epidemiological data.
At the same press conference on the 2nd, the minister and officials drank a tonic made from ginger, lemon, and garlic, which they said was a natural way to end the virus. That the anti-vaccines are still there, we knew, that they would scramble the public debate around the coronavirus. We have seen it; But that an entire country, with its 55 million inhabitants, decided not to use vaccines was not in our plans.
And after seeing the virus’s ease in crossing borders or suffering first-hand from how the likelihood of new strains increases as the virus circulates freely, Tanzania’s decision puts many doubts on the table. What impact can this have on the rest of the world? Will it become a huge repository of the virus that will prolong the return to normality globally? Can we get it back at some point?
A problem that goes beyond Tanzania
Although most of Africa has a big problem with epidemiological data, the situation in Tanzania is austere. As of April 2020, authorities have not published anything on COVID, and, as I said, since the summer, the government’s position is that the virus does not exist (or is residual) in the country. In fact, as the WHO Regional Office for Africa explained in The Lancet, they don’t even know that preventive measures or restrictions have been implemented to protect the population.
And, of course, this is not just a problem within Tanzania’s borders. It is also a problem abroad. “Lack of cooperation will make it dangerous for everyone” and jeopardize the continent’s development goals, said John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ultimately, beyond the support that the African country’s strategy presupposes for the anti-vaccine movement, in a globalized world, the existence of countries that deliberately decide not to control the virus presents an additional problem.
What are the repercussions of all this?
Tanzania is not the only country “without COVID”: North Korea and Turkmenistan also benefit from this status (questionable and self-proclaimed). However, Tanzania is the most dangerous. Especially because no one knows for sure how the pandemic situation is in most of the continent. Even if we can put epidemiological barriers (with mandatory quarantines for travelers, border controls, etc.), the circulation of the virus itself favors variants’ formation.
In other words, although Tanzania does not directly engage the rest of the world and where it generates the most problems is at the local level (which makes the efforts of countries in the region more difficult), the truth is that not good news for anyone. This is not a simple anecdote. So far, the virus has not found many ways to improve its transmissibility, but we cannot believe that this will continue to be the case.
However, this is where the real problem lies, and we don’t seem to have a way to fix it. Tanzania is a sovereign country. Whatever sanctions may be imposed internationally (and the blockade to which it is subject), it has all the legitimacy in the world to apply its own policies. As extravagant as they are. So, basically, it’s a permanent reminder that epidemiological surveillance must be (and strongly) strengthened. Something that, as we already know, we don’t do well.
The goal of group immunity is getting closer every day, yes, but, paradoxically, every day seems more complicated.
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