The United Republic of Tanzania has stood out as the only country to declare victory over the coronavirus when, in April 2020, President John Pombe Magufuli, who is Catholic, told worshippers in an Evangelical Lutheran Church in Geita province, that “God has answered our prayers”. At the onset of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Tanzania, President Magufuli invited religious leaders in the East African nation to offer prayers, during a three-day period April 17-19, 2020 for God’s protection and healing, declaring that coronavirus was a “devil which cannot survive in the Body of Christ and would burn immediately”.
While neighboring Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda have all had various forms of restrictions—the strictest measures being enforced in Uganda and Rwanda, where citizens needed a police permit to go outside, and closure of churches and mosques in Kenya—Tanzania took a different path, opting not to impose lockdowns and curfews.
While Tanzania stopped releasing daily updates of COVID-19 infections and deaths on April 29, 2020, the President of the Tanzanian Episcopal Conference, Archbishop Gervas John Nyaisonga, has now issued a letter urging caution on new COVID-19 infections in Tanzania. In the January 26 letter addressed to Cardinal Pengo, the Apostolic Nuncio to Tanzania, archbishops, bishops and bishops emeriti, Archbishop Nyaisonga acknowledged that Tanzania was successful in dealing with the spread of the coronavirus, attributing the success to deep faith in God, heeding the directives of medical professionals and caring for each other.
In the letter, Archbishop Nyaisonga, who is also the Archbishop of Mbeya, raises alarm over a spike of new COVID-19 infections in 2021, noting that “many countries have confirmed they were facing challenges in tackling the spread of corona and deaths as a result.”
He further pointed out that Tanzania “is not an island”, and the country should instead be on high alert, by taking precautions and crying to God even more, to avoid the pandemic. The Archbishop appealed to his brother bishops to continue providing leadership and guidance to their flock in the fight against the coronavirus, from all aspects, spiritual, physical, medical and social. “We should not stop insisting on prayer, social distancing, regular hand washing and sanitizing, taking immediate action at the earliest symptoms and avoiding crowded places”, he said.
A week before Archbishop’s Nyaisonga’s letter, the Archbishop of Arusha, His Excellency Isaac Amani, had on January 20th written to priests, religious, and lay people in his archdiocese on the subject of COVID-19. The letter, read in parishes across the vast archdiocese in the northern part of Tanzania, lamented the lax attitude that Archbishop Amani noted, many Tanzanians had adopted, “as if the virus no longer existed”. “Many precautions such as avoiding the shaking of hands, taking offerings after communion and receiving the Body of Christ on the hand, seem to have been forgotten”, he said.
While calling for sustained prayer, Archbishop Amani insisted on the need, particularly for priests and nuns, to be extra careful to avoid infections among them, and possible infection of the people they serve. The Archbishop of Arusha went further in his letter to suggest that wearing of masks may be necessary, in a country where the president has suggested the coronavirus has been defeated and has dismissed mask-wearing.
“I am not a doctor, but I am a shepherd”, said Archbishop Amani in his letter. “As we continue with this Year of Saint Joseph, who provided for and protected the Holy Family, I urge caution and invite all through this letter to greater responsibility and cooperation in Christ, in an issue that concerns life and studying the signs of the times”, Archbishop Amani concluded.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Tanzanian government will urge citizens to take any measures in response to the statements from Catholic leaders. In a rejoinder, Deputy Minister for Health Dr. Goodluck Mollel, was quoted by Tanzanian daily Mwananchi as insisting that there were no COVID-19 infections in Tanzania and that any information to the contrary was online chatter.
Speaking at a public rally in Geita, just a day after Archbishop Nyaisonga’s letter, President Magufuli claimed that some Tanzanian citizens had traveled abroad to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and returned to the country with what he called “strange corona”, and urged caution against vaccines from outside.
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