Days after President John Mafuguli finally admitted Tanzania has a coronavirus problem, after months of apparent denial and increasing warnings of a resurgence in infections, the sight of the country’s finance minister coughing and gasping during a news conference to defend the state of his health has left many in shock.
Finance Minister Philip Mpango, who did not reveal what he was suffering from, spoke to about 10 reporters on Tuesday at a hospital in the capital, Dodoma, after rumours that he had died of COVID-19. A recent spate of deaths attributed to “pneumonia” and “respiratory challenges” has struck both government officials and members of the public.
Mpango, who was not wearing a mask, was flanked by a doctor and a hospital director – both also maskless. Behind him stood doctors and nurses who were wearing masks.
The minister, his voice trembling, had a coughing fit at the news conference to announce he was being discharged from hospital after 14 days.
“I came to the hospital with my oxygen cylinder but in the last three days I did not use it because my health has improved,” he said, briefly breaking down as he sent condolences following the recent deaths.
“If you physically look at him, he was not supposed to talk at all but probably there was pressure behind,” one of the people present, who asked not to be identified, was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.
On social media, people expressed horror at the scene, including opposition leader Tundu Lissu.
“Has the intelligence of our leaders reached this level? Who allowed this patient to cough on people, instead of being in hospital for treatment or bed rest?” he wrote on Twitter. “What kind of doctor is this who was coughed on without mask? What are you trying to prove by this recklessness?”
Magufuli has insisted for months that COVID-19 had been fended off by prayer, but in recent days conceded it was still circulating after the vice president of semi-autonomous Zanzibar was revealed to have died of the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
On Sunday, he revealed that some of his aides and family members had contracted COVID-19 but recovered, and offered some lukewarm support for the use of masks.
“Let us all depend on God as we also take other preventive measures. I put God first and that is why I do not wear a mask.”
It came as the head of the World Health Organization appealed to Tanzania’s government to take “robust action” against COVID-19 after several travellers from the country tested positive.
In a statement, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesusrenew also renewed his call for authorities to start reporting COVID-19 cases and share data – Tanzania, a country of some 60 million people, stopped releasing figures on COVID-19 in April 2020.
On Monday, the United States issued a “do not travel” warning to Tanzania, due to the spread of the virus. The next day, Oman said it would not allow people from Tanzania to enter the Gulf country for 15 days, while Kenya announced on Wednesday that its athletes were banned from competing in Tanzania’s top marathon race on Saturday over concerns about the pandemic.