Tanzanian minister coughs through press conference aimed at defusing Covid fears

The opposition leader condemns the government’s ‘recklessness’ over Covid

Clea Skopeliti
Thursday 25 February 2021 12:21 GMT
The press conference backfired as the finance minister broke into a coughing fit
The press conference backfired as the finance minister broke into a coughing fit (Reporter’s screenshot)

A Tanzanian minister coughed and gasped throughout a press conference aimed at announcing he is in good health, following his hospitalisation that led to false reports that he had died of Covid-19.

Rumours of finance minister Philip Mpango’s death come amid a spate of high profile fatalities from the disease in the east African country that has consistently downplayed the spread of the coronavirus.

Seif Sharif Hamad, one of Tanzania’s most prominent politicians and a former vice president of Zanzibar, died after contracting the virus last week. The country’s Covid-denying president John Magufuli’s chief secretary also died in recent days, though the government has not confirmed his cause of death.

In an attempt to dispel rumours about himself, Mr Mpango hosted a press conference from outside a hospital in the capital Dodoma where he had been a patient for two weeks. He was clearly in poor health, breaking into fits of coughing and gasping for air as told a group of reporters that “his health has improved” in recent days.

The minister was not wearing a face covering as he spluttered through the announcement, with a doctor and hospital director on either side of him – both also maskless. He did not discuss his ailment instead offering condolences over the recent deaths, which he attributed to “pneumonia” and “respiratory challenges”.

While coronavirus deaths across the African continent passed the grim milestone of 100,000 last week – which experts believe is far below than the real figure – the nation of 60 million people continues to maintain that it has only suffered 21 deaths and 509 cases. Meanwhile, Kenya, which has a comparable population, has recorded 104,000 infections and nearly 2,000 deaths since the pandemic began.

The scene outside the hospital was met with anger on social media, with the the leader of the opposition, Tundu Lissu condemning the minister’s “recklessness”.

“Has the intelligence of our leaders reached this level? Who allowed this patient to cough on people, instead of being in hospital for treatment or bed rest?” he wrote on Twitter. “What kind of doctor is this who was coughed on without [a] mask? What are you trying to prove by this recklessness?”

The government has recently back-pedalled on its claims that the virus has been defeated by prayer after months of maintaining the party line. On Sunday, the premier issued a lukewarm appeal to citizens, advising them to take precautions and even wear face masks (but only those made locally). It came as World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged Tanzania to take “robust action” against the virus.

Tanzania stopped publishing data on the toll of the virus in May 2020, with Mr Magufuli casting doubt on the reliability of testing and instead encouraging Tanzanians to pray. The health ministry has also promoted the use of unproven natural remedies, such as ginger. The president claimed last June that the virus, which has killed at least 2.5 million people globally, had been eradicated in Tanzania through prayer.

The United States and Oman have banned citizens from travelling to the country in recent days, while neighbouring Kenya has barred its athletes from competing in Tanzania’s marathon due to concerns over its handling of the pandemic

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