Tanzania’s health minister said earlier this month that the country has no plans to procure COVID-19 vaccines. Moina Spooner, an editor with The Conversation Africa, asked Catherine Kyobutungi to explain Tanzania’s COVID-19 response and why it’s problematic.
Why has the decision been taken not to vaccinate?
Tanzania has had a unique approach to controlling COVID-19. Only a few months into the pandemic last year, the president of the country, John Magufuli, declared Tanzania COVID-free following three days of national prayers.
He has since refused to impose a lockdown, re-opened schools, allowed large sporting events, continued religious gatherings, stopped testing and stopped public communications campaigns about the virus. The country also stopped reporting cases and deaths.
The argument was that people should stop living in fear and that they should trust in God and rely on traditional African remedies to prevent getting the virus. It may be the only country in the world that has taken this approach. It goes against everything that has been recommended by scientists, other national health agencies and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
It’s therefore not surprising that the authorities have said that they do not have plans to vaccinate the population against COVID-19, at least for now.
Will people still be able to access vaccines?
No. And yes.
No, because a vaccine may not be used in the country without it being registered and licensed for use. The normal process is that experts in the country, together with regulatory bodies, review the data about the vaccine and approve its use if they are satisfied about its efficacy and safety.
For the COVID-19 vaccine, this is being done through the WHO Emergency Use Listing procedure. The review is done by an international team of experts with participation of experts from national authorities.
If Tanzania refuses to register the vaccine for use in the country, it will not be accessible to anyone.
The country could, however, register the vaccine but refuse to import it. This would allow the private sector to import some, but it won’t be enough. COVID-19 vaccination programmes of any country are a massive undertaking. If it’s driven by the private sector many may not be able to access or afford the vaccines.
In the meantime those that could get vaccinated are Tanzania’s elites (or those with means) who could fly out of the country and get vaccinated elsewhere.
Other Tanzanians that could access vaccines are border communities who, in the past, have crossed over to neighbouring countries and benefited from vaccination programmes. This may be the case if and when widespread vaccination starts happening in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Malawi.
But that’s a couple of years from now.
There is still a chance that Tanzania could register and import the vaccines in the future. Magufuli has been sending mixed messages. On one hand, the government has said that it doesn’t plan to order vaccines through COVAX – a global initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines – or any other mechanism. Indeed, the recently released COVAX allocation has zero doses for Tanzania.
On the other hand, he has said that Tanzanians should only trust those vaccines that have been reviewed by Tanzanian experts and found to be safe.
Does Tanzania have a history of vaccination resistance?
Not that I am aware of.
Tanzania, like other countries, has implemented routine vaccination programmes. These mostly target children below the age of five against diseases like tuberculosis, polio, whooping cough, measles, rubella, and diphtheria. In recent years these expanded to include vaccines again bacterial pneumonia, diarrhoea and hepatitis B.
Vaccination coverage (the percentage of people who receive the vaccine out of the target population) in Tanzania is very high: around 80%-90%. This means that there isn’t a history of vaccine resistance.
What’s different in the country compared with neighbours like Kenya and Uganda
Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Malawi have all frantically been trying to get their hands on COVID-19 vaccines for their citizens. They have all participated in the COVAX facility, and have developed vaccine rollout plans, costed them and submitted them. Rwanda has even gone ahead and obtained vaccines outside the COVAX facility.
All four countries have also started communicating to the public about these plans. For instance, they’ve said that the first round of allocations will be prioritised for healthcare workers and high risk members of the population.
The biggest problem African countries face right now is the lack of vaccines on the global market to vaccinate a significant part of the population. Many rich countries will have vaccinated everyone that needs to be vaccinated by the end of this year. But African countries will only have a widely available vaccine late next year or even in 2023.
If the countries which has been aggressively looking for vaccines are so far behind, imagine a country like Tanzania which at this time has not even started.
What’s the risk for the country and the region?
The risk for the country is already evident. The approach taken by Tanzania has allowed the virus to spread unchecked in the population. All of a sudden, people are dying of what is being labelled as “pneumonia” and “breathing difficulties”.
People living in Tanzania aren’t sufficiently prepared or protected: there are no protocols for what lay people should do if someone falls sick to prevent the virus spreading. Most information is about steaming – to prevent COVID-19 – but that does not stop the virus spreading from person to person.
The second biggest problem is the impact on healthcare workers. Even in countries where stringent measures have been put in place, healthcare workers have fallen sick and many have died. Misinformation in Tanzania could mean health workers don’t take enough precautions in outpatient clinics, emergency rooms and even wards when taking care of patients. With healthcare workers falling sick, other health services are bound to be affected.
The biggest danger to the region and the world is two-fold.
First, as long as there are COVID-19 cases in Tanzania, it is impossible for neighbouring countries – with which it shares porous borders – to be COVID-free.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the risk of new variants developing in the country when no one is keeping track. New variants emerge because of uncontrolled spread.
If, down the line, a new variant emerges in Tanzania, the danger is that it could spread across the region and invalidate vaccinations that may have taken place if they’re not effective against that variant.
The pandemic will not end for anyone, anywhere until it is controlled in every country. Tanzania’s approach will make it that much harder for normality to return.
Zambia’s efforts to promote the consumption of local products is now getting the maximum campaign and recognition across the country.
Various stakeholders are now appreciating the fact the promotion and consumption of local products are good for the growth of the economy.
Granted, Zambia has been an import-dependent country for years but slowly this is diminishing as more people are beginning to understand the importance of appreciating local products.
Recently, President Edgar Lungu expressed happiness that more local products are being sold in shops and that more people are consuming the products.
“This is patriotism. It is also a clear indication that our ‘Proudly Zambian Campaign’ has taken root,” he said when he addressed the National Assembly on the progress made on the application of the national values and principles.
According to him, 33 companies have so far been certified to use the official “Proudly Zambia” logo, covering 500 product lines, adding that this is a step in the right direction and a mark of quality as well as increasing competitiveness of local products.
The benefits accruing to this national consciousness are evident in the increased consumption of what we produce, he added.
“This is not only creating a ready market for our local producers but also creating employment opportunities for more of our people, particularly the youth,” he said.
Indeed the need to promote the consumption of local products cannot be over-emphasized.
Last week, the government banned the importation of onions and potatoes from outside the country.
Ministry of Agriculture Permanent Secretary Songowayo Zyambo said there is no need to import the two products because the country had enough of them to meet national demand.
He said in a release that the decision was arrived at following consultations with various stakeholders.
Stakeholders have since supported the move as well as encouraged authorities to extend the ban to other products that can easily be produced locally.
Buy Zed, which promotes the buying of local products, has expressed delight at the move to restrict the importation of onions and potatoes.
Evans Ngoma, the founder of Buy Zed says the move will have a positive effect on many players, especially farmers who are now assured of a ready market.
He however said there is need for farmers to build their capacity in order to meet the demand.
The Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU), a grouping of farmers, has also welcomed the move as this will promote local production of agricultural products.
“ZNFU is confident that producers are capable of expanding production because there are examples where this has happened such as wheat industry where import substitution has happened,” he said in a release.
He has since urged the ministry responsible for agriculture to be resolute on the policy and not to be swayed, adding that regulation of imported agricultural products should go beyond onions and potatoes.
According to him, the continued importation of certain agricultural products has a negative effect on the country’s economy.
The need to produce local products is not new in Zambia and has been a focus of discussion for many years although realization of the move has been slow.
In 2004, the Ministry of Commerce, Trade and Industry launched the “Proudly Zambian Campaign” which seeks to spur job creation and economic development through the promotion of production and consumption of high-quality Zambian products.
The campaign entails that products under it have an official logo as a mark of quality assurance and national pride.
The campaign recognises that consumers want to buy goods of high standard and quality hence all products under the campaign are subjected to a vetting process to ensure highest standard.
Indeed the appreciation of local products is now becoming a buzzword all over the country. Countries are now realizing the importance of promoting local products in spite of the globalization agenda and Zambia is no exception.