NAIROBI – In a major breakthrough for one of the world's last countries to embrace COVID-19 vaccines, Tanzania’s president kicked off its vaccination campaign Wednesday by publicly receiving a dose and urging others to do the same. But she immediately met some hesitation in one of Africa's most populous nations.
The East African country’s government under former President John Magufuli had long worried health officials by denying the pandemic. Magufuli, who insisted the coronavirus could be defeated with prayer, died in March. The presidency went to his deputy, Samia Suluhu Hassan, who has since changed Tanzania's course on COVID-19.
Hassan, who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, expressed confidence in the safety of vaccines and said the country of more than 58 million people will pursue more. The United States on Saturday announced the delivery of more than 1 million doses via the COVAX global initiative aimed at supplying low- and middle-income countries.
Now the Tanzanian government's challenge is to reverse the skepticism the previous administration promoted about COVID-19 vaccines. “Why don’t we consider our traditional solutions? Why do we have to use foreign medicine? Is there something that is hidden here?” asked one resident of commercial capital Dar es Salaam, Kelvin Mmari, who said Wednesday he's not willing to be vaccinated.
Tanzania's president stressed that the vaccine is voluntary, and other citizens welcomed the arrival of doses. “The action by the president to take a new direction in the battle against the coronavirus has brought relief to Tanzanians,” said Dar es Salaam resident Hawa Bihoga.
Tanzania went well over a year without updating its number of confirmed virus cases but has now resumed reporting the data to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which showed 858 cases in the country as of Wednesday.
Critics of Tanzania’s past stance on COVID-19, however, have long warned that many more people have been infected.
The country is trying to catch up as many parts of the African continent face a devastating resurgence of infections. “We are making efforts to ensure that we import more vaccines to meet the demand,” Hassan said.
Tanzania’s president has even pledged to invest in vaccine manufacturing, according to the Africa CDC; the agency’s director, John Nkengasong, met with Hassan on Tuesday. African countries, hit hard by so-called vaccine nationalism as rich nations prioritize doses for their own citizens, are embracing the need to have more control over vaccine production.
Just two African countries still have yet to start COVID-19 vaccinations, Burundi and Eritrea. Burundi, whose late President Pierre Nkurunziza also had been criticized for downplaying the pandemic, has said vaccines aren't needed yet. And Eritrea has long been criticized by human rights groups as one of the world's most closed-off, repressive countries.