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Workers prepare face shields from recycled plastics at the Zaidi Recyclers workshop as a measure to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on May 21, 2020. President John Magufuli has repeatedly claimed to have defeated the coronavirus 'with God’s help' and with the power of prayer.

Stringer/Reuters

The World Health Organization, losing patience with Tanzania after its prolonged secrecy over its accelerating wave of COVID-19 cases, has urged the government to begin preparing for the vaccination effort that it has long rejected.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has repeatedly claimed to have defeated the coronavirus “with God’s help” and with the power of prayer. But there is mounting evidence that Tanzanians – including prominent leaders – are dying from the virus. Travellers from Tanzania are also exporting the virus to other countries, according to the WHO.

For nearly 10 months, Mr. Magufuli’s government has refused to issue any data on its COVID-19 cases, claiming the virus had simply vanished. But the unusual warning from the WHO, issued late on Saturday night, was a sign of the world’s growing frustration with the denials – and a fear that the East African country could remain a virus hot spot after other countries have vaccinated.

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The situation in Tanzania is “very concerning” and requires “robust action” to protect people inside the country and in other countries where travelling Tanzanians are arriving, according to the statement by WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

He said he has been urging Tanzania to be more transparent for nearly a month. “Since then I have spoken with several authorities in Tanzania, but WHO is yet to receive information regarding what measures Tanzania is taking to respond to the pandemic,” he said.

“A number of Tanzanians travelling to neighbouring countries and beyond have tested positive for COVID-19. … I renew my call for Tanzania to start reporting COVID-19 cases and share data. I also call on Tanzania to implement the public-health measures that we know work in breaking the chains of transmission, and to prepare for vaccination.”

Coronavirus tracker: How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

Mr. Magufuli’s government has found it increasingly difficult to maintain its denials after a series of recent deaths among prominent officials and parliamentarians, including Seif Sharif Hamad, the first vice-president of Tanzania’s semi-autonomous Zanzibar region, who died after testing positive for the virus – a rare official acknowledgment.

The U.S. embassy in Tanzania, in a statement on Feb. 10, expressed concern about a “significant increase” in COVID-19 cases in the country. The embassy warned that Tanzania’s health care facilities could “become quickly overwhelmed.”

The Catholic Church and the Tanzania Law Society have also sounded the alarm about rising cases of the virus in the country. Hospitals have been crowded with patients with officially unidentified illnesses, and there has also been a surge in funerals. Countries as far away as Thailand, India, Oman and Denmark have reported COVID-19 cases among travellers arriving from Tanzania.

But despite the strong evidence of a rising wave of cases in Tanzania, and despite the free availability of millions of vaccines from the global COVAX program, the government has preferred to recommend various herbal remedies, hot-steam treatments and prayers.

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Last week it announced three days of prayers and fasting to seek divine protection against unnamed “respiratory diseases.” This came after hospitals had described a mysterious increase in “pneumonia” among Tanzanian adults – a term that is widely suspected of being a euphemism for COVID-19.

Earlier this month, Tanzanian Health Minister Dorothy Gwajima summoned the media to a news conference where she and other officials touted the benefits of vegetable smoothies to prevent the coronavirus. As the television cameras rolled, the minister and her officials used a blender to create a herbal concoction of ginger, lemon, pepper and onions, and then gulped glasses of it. The minister and Mr. Magufuli have both insisted that Tanzania has no need for vaccines.

This strict stand, however, might finally be softening. A government statement on Sunday suggested that Tanzanians should follow precautions against the virus – including face masks, as long as they are locally made. (It warned that foreign-made masks could be dangerous.)

A prominent Tanzanian social activist, Maria Sarungi Tsehai, said the government is “slowly coming to terms with reality” as it realizes that it cannot hide the deaths of top leaders such as the Zanzibar vice-president. The frequent news of Tanzanian travellers testing positive for the virus has also embarrassed the government, she told The Globe and Mail.

“The WHO is doing the right thing in repeatedly calling on the government to follow scientific precautionary measures to contain the spread and save lives,” Ms. Tsehai said.

“And the good news is that, however begrudgingly, now the government has admitted it has a coronavirus problem. It’s like an addict taking the first step toward recovery.”

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Zitto Kabwe, a Tanzanian opposition leader, said the WHO should “move from words to actions” by sending a team of investigators into Tanzania to review its handling of the entire pandemic. The African Union and other African groups should also be putting pressure on Tanzania, he told The Globe.

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