Even as the world struggles to grapple with the brutal third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a small but vocal group of skeptics insists that sinister forces are exaggerating the effects of the virus, control measures like lockdowns are unnecessary, and newly developed vaccines are unsafe. These COVID-19 truthers have, for a year now, cherry-picked and distorted all kinds of so-called evidence to prop up their convictions.
But over the last few weeks especially, many have tried to argue their case by pointing to the East African nation of Tanzania. There, a remarkably Trumpian president with an interest in downplaying the pandemic and tight authoritarian controls on the press and social media alike has carefully crafted a bogus narrative that the nation is a sort of restriction- and virus-free utopia.
“The Tanzanian government is literally the only country in the world who: stopped testing, is against the poisonous vaccine, promotes people to eat healthy, has fully open borders for travel, doesn’t wear masks,” Covid Red Pills, a prominent pandemic denial and misinformation channel on Telegram, claimed in a widely-read post late last week.
“No excess deaths either,” the post added, without evidence.
“I know someone who is in Tanzania,” a Redditor wrote in NoNewNormal, a community built around pandemic control measure skepticism, late last month. “I see on Instagram their stories they are going to parties with hundreds of people with no masks. If Africa can carry on as normal… why can’t we!”
“When I see this it just confirms what a shamdemic this whole thing really is,” the user added.
“Why isn’t America talking about Tanzania?” Josharmond, an influencer with a penchant for pandemic misinformation, asked in an apparently since-deleted but still findable December TikTok video. “Tanzania has no lockdown in its country. Since December 15th 2020 there’ve been 509 confirmed cases, 21 deaths, and 183 recoveries. I’d be more distraught if the country didn’t have over 56 million people!”
Pandemic truthers have had a mild obsession with Tanzania since as far back as May. Posts about the country’s refusal to align with global pandemic response standards, low reported caseload and death rate, and seemingly normal, carefree lifestyle circulate through COVID-skeptical and conspiratorial Reddit forums, Telegram channels, and Twitter silos, as well as misinformation hubs like the site Lockdown Sceptics, every few weeks.
But this recent rush of posts has garnered more views, shares, and commentary within the hardcore truther ecosystem than any other Tanzania-centric content posted since last spring.
COVID truthers’ Tanzania preoccupation vexes some experts on pandemic disinformation and conspiracy theories. “This is a country most people in America cannot place on a map,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor, disinformation monitor, and FactCheck.org co-founder, told The Daily Beast. “Why would stories about Tanzania have the capacity to spread with audiences in countries like the United States?”
“The fact that Tanzania is being used to justify skepticism in the West is ironic and upsetting at the same time” for many familiar with the nation as well, added Frank Minja, a Tanzanian doctor currently based in the U.S. who has been monitoring the pandemic in his home country. The situation there is worse than official narratives, swallowed seemingly uncritically by truthers, let on, he added.
However, Tanzania’s place in the hardcore pandemic skeptic mythos makes sense when you consider the rhetoric the country has used in its COVID messaging, the way it controls its national narrative, and the approaches truthers take when gathering and assessing evidence.
When Tanzania confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in mid-March, authorities responded unremarkably at first, shutting down schools immediately and rolling out more limitations on public social gatherings as they went. Granted, they refused to put any limits on places of worship during their mild lockdown, likely due to the strength of domestic religious belief, including in the healing power of faith and prayer. In March, Tanzanian President John Magufuli notoriously claimed that “corona cannot survive in the body of Christ; it will burn.”
But at the end of April, the nation stopped reporting confirmed cases and deaths to global health bodies. (The 509 cases and 21 deaths Josharmond—who did not respond to a request for comment—cited in his TikTok video actually reflect the situation in the nation as of its final report to the WHO.) Then, Magufuli told the nation that he doubted the numbers reported by his own national lab—and that, to test his doubts, he had sent them samples collected from a goat, a quail, and a papaya, all of which he said tested positive for COVID-19.
We don’t know if our political leaders really believe in these conspiracies, or whether they are just using them as distractions.
Frank Minja, a Tanzanian doctor currently based in the U.S.
This, he suggested, meant that the international-standard COVID-19 tests his lab used were flawed, the lab itself was corrupt, or both.
Either way, he argued that they could not trust testing figures. The president further suggested that herbal remedies could both help people avoid and treat the virus, argued the disease wasn’t as bad as people made it out to be, and railed against politicians from opposition parties who continued to call for lockdowns.
“We don’t know if our political leaders really believe in these conspiracies, or whether they are just using them as distractions,” Minja told The Daily Beast. But Daniel Paget, a University of Aberdeen scholar who studies modern Tanzanian politics, pointed out that Magufuli was openly and incredibly concerned about the effects pandemic control measures might have on Tanzania’s economy.
“The pandemic hit months before their October general election,” Paget explained. “Magufuli planned to run on … a sunshine, two-chickens-in-every-pot platform. A raging pandemic would upset that message.” So, he had a huge political incentive to downplay the pandemic.
The clear parallels here between Donald Trump and Magufuli are no coincidence: Experts say that the Tanzanian president has consciously modeled elements of his overall leadership approach on Trump and other rabid nationalist populist leaders, especially over the last year. Minja notes that he even echoed some of Trump’s Twitter rhetoric at times.
The Tanzanian president also has a long record of allegedly manipulating data to cover up problems, and of mishandling disease outbreaks.
Whatever his reasons, Magufuli’s rhetoric fit right in with emerging pandemic skeptical narratives. Notably, he suggested shadowy global imperialists may have paid local scientists to hype up COVID-19 in order to hurt the nation, and his administration reportedly ridiculed people for wearing masks.
“Anything that fits that kind of conspiracy theory narrative has the potential to get traction” in global social media circles, Jamieson explained. So, in retrospect it’s no surprise that mainstream reporting on Magufuli’s wild papaya corruption claims wound up circulating in pandemic skeptic digital spheres throughout the latter half of May—widely enough to attract the attention of the major debunking site Snopes, which rated the claim “unproven” due to a “lack of any evidence apart from [Magulfuli’s] own statements to support it.” A few truthers have, seemingly apropos of nothing, conjured up this test sting saga every few weeks since then to cast doubt on COVID tests and case numbers in general.
That initial flurry of activity last spring seemingly established a feedback loop between Tanzanian Magufuli allies and believers and a global network of hardcore COVID truthers.
“It flows both ways. Tanzania uses some of the stories coming from places like the United States to justify their narratives, as well,” Minja explained. “The conspiracies we see in local Swahili social media are literally the exact same conspiracies, word-for-word, that we see on global English-speaking social media.”
Every time Magufuli made a new wild move—like declaring Tanzania definitively COVID-19 free and winding down lockdowns in June—he got some play in truther circles.
But in late January, when Magufuli came out hard against COVID-19 vaccines, the love affair between COVID truthers worldwide and this East African nation got a major shot in the arm.
Falsely calling vaccines inappropriate, likely unsafe, and perhaps part of a global plot to impoverish Tanzania, Magufuli drew a new and wider wave of global attention. Public demos by his health minister in recent days on how to kill COVID with steam inhalation and treat it with tonics made of local fruits and herbs, both scientifically unproven methods, have helped to keep Tanzania consistently relevant in truther circles for well over a week. (Neither the Embassy of Tanzania in Washington, D.C., nor the Tanzanian Ministry of Health replied to requests for comment for this story.)
Truther posts about Tanzania rarely attract much criticism because few foreign debunkers know much about the nation, and because Tanzanian officials and even some everyday citizens often support the idea that they are basically a COVID-free utopia, and that the world should follow their largely control-free example. “Even the opposition, by the fall, were not following any COVID-19 precautions,” Minja noted. “The whole population eventually bought into the administration’s narratives.”
This makes it easy for truthers to brush aside claims from international health organizations, media outlets, and other actors that Tanzania has actually just been covering up numerous COVID deaths. Calls for Tanzania to fall into line with global pandemic control norms, and moves to ban travel to or from the nation, can be cast as retaliatory acts by the sinister forces many hardcore pandemic skeptics fear.
However, the only reason Tanzania’s narrative seems so rosy and universally supported within that country to uncritical observers is the fact that, as Minja and other locals and experts told The Daily Beast, the government has made it almost impossible to contradict Magufuli’s narrative. The state does not allow anyone but officials to check on hospital occupancy or generate statistics, and introduced a law this summer to allow it to fine anyone over $2,000 and/or put them in jail for at least a year for saying anything online that contradicts the government’s COVID narrative. Tanzania has reportedly arrested numerous citizens, and punished journalists, for trying to talk about the actual pandemic situation in Tanzania, especially when they post content in English, which is more visible to international audiences than Swahili.
Minja says that Tanzanians do share stories in Swahili forums online that reflect a darker picture than the government or global skeptics paint. But this info is usually coded, using euphemisms for COVID-19 that outsiders would not understand in order to avoid any legal repercussions. It is also not precise enough to paint a clear countervailing picture of the real pandemic in Tanzania.
This is actually the exact kind of coercive information control that many COVID truthers argue nations are using to exaggerate the pandemic and expand their control. But truthers likely do not see this irony because they don’t know much about Tanzania or the people telling the stories they consume. Nor do most care to do that kind of research or open themselves to that knowledge. Conspiratorial beliefs like COVID denialism thrive on the uncritical search for and consumption of validating information, and on efforts to defend cherished evidence tooth and nail when it is challenged.
Tanzania may actually change its tune on the pandemic soon, Minja and others argued. After an aggressive push to court tourism in December and early January, Swahili social media watchers and on-the-ground activists noticed a spike in (often still coded) claims of COVID-19 deaths. The government has implicitly acknowledged that it is not, as it argued in June, COVID-free by issuing new guidelines on testing and promoting new, scientifically unproven homebrew cures. News has also started to get around that a prominent government official recently came down with a case of COVID-19. At least one Tanzanian diplomat has, contrary to Magufuli’s rhetoric about vaccines, reportedly openly received a jab abroad as well. And major local institutions, like the Catholic Church, have started to contradict Magufuli publicly, and to call for more stringent pandemic control measures.
“The people sharing Tanzania’s story are clearly not following these changes,” Minja said.
However, even if Tanzania changes course, that likely won’t stop COVID truthers from using the country as evidence in their deluded crusade against public health measures. It will just turn the state, for many observers, into the martyr to global coercion they always feared it would become.
“Tanzania will have an ‘outbreak’ of covid-19 within the next few weeks,” a Redditor wrote in a conversation on the site’s Conspiracy_Commons forum in late December. “Watch.”