The unspoken consensus around the world just might well be that the late Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli got his comeuppance. Although not officially confirmed, Magufuli very likely died of a Covid-19 on Wednesday this week; the official line is that he had a 10-year-old heart condition. It is known that such an underlying condition makes the sufferer more prone to dying of Covid-19.
Magufuli’s claim to infamy was his Covid-19 denialism. Despite the science, and he himself being a scientist (he studied and taught Chemistry and Mathematics) he denied the existence of the novel coronavirus and did not take heed of World Health Organisation’s universal advice to follow certain protocols in order to avoid the spread of the virus.
Only three days before he disappeared from public life on February 27 he had reiterated his stance that there was no Covid-19 in Tanzania because, as he said, the country had defeated it through prayer. And, if everyone steamed themselves with certain herbs, the disease would not catch them.
He never masked up, nor encouraged social distancing (often he was seen shaking hands with anyone who cared always with his wide smile.) He never implemented lockdowns like most leaders around the globe, encouraging people to continue working. Anyone who suggested the pandemic had hit Tanzania fell afoul of the law and was arrested.
Magufuli was hardly the only world leader who denied the existence of Covid-19 and was affected by it. Before him former US President Donald Trump and Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro had caught the disease too. They survived though, through their advanced healthcare systems. Magufuli was not so lucky; some may say he got his just deserts.
For Zimbabwe the Magufuli debacle should be a salutary lesson — grab the science and run with it! Zimbabwe’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been decent; when people round the world talk about the most successful response they point to New Zealand but that may as well be the usual prejudice against Africa. With a population of 16 million and recording only 1 500 deaths, Zimbabwe must surely be up there with the best, especially considering its proximity to South Africa where the disease has wreaked worse havoc than in any other country on the continent.
Unlike Magufuli who went into full denial, the Zimbabwean leadership quickly realised what was at stake and despite the initial missteps, went into survival mode by enforcing all the WHO recommendations to avoid the spread. Lockdowns were put in place when necessary and people were encouraged to stick strictly to protocols that restricted the spread of the virus. But if the initial response was successful, the next stage is proving more problematic and that is because the general populace is refusing to believe the science.
Zimbabwe has reached the stage where the natural next stage is mass vaccination. In a very important way, Zimbabweans have been luckier than most people in the poor world to be among the first to roll out a vaccination programme despite the vaccine nationalism around the world. Many African countries look at Zimbabwe with envy for this.
But hell no! Zimbabweans themselves do not wish to be vaccinated if the uptake of the first phase is anything to go by. The reasons are spurious; they don’t trust the Chinese vaccine for reasons to do mostly with an enduring colonial mentality which dictates that vaccines from former colonial powers must be preferred to Eastern ones.
As the third wave inevitably comes, more Zimbabweans will very likely perish, not because they couldn’t avoid it but simply because of an irrational attitude similar to Magufuli’s.