Tanzania’s president, John Magufuli , one of Africa’s most prominent Covid-19 deniers, has died after a two-week absence from public life which prompted speculation that he had contracted the disease.
Magufuli’s death was announced on Wednesday by the country’s vice-president Samia Suluhu, who said the president died of heart failure. He was 61.
“The president of the United Republic of Tanzania, the honourable Dr John Pombe Joseph Magufuli … [has] died of a heart condition, at hospital Mzena in Dar es Salaam, where he was receiving treatment,” she said on state broadcaster TBC.
Magufuli had not been seen in public since 27 February and rumours swirled online that he was sick and possibly incapacitated from illness. Government officials had insisted Magufuli was working normally and citizens should ignore rumours from outside the country. Last week, the country’s opposition leader, Tundu Lissu, told the BBC that Magafuli was critically ill in a hospital in Kenya after contracting Covid-19.
The mystery around the president’s whereabouts and condition prompted fear and anxiety in Tanzania. Police had arrested four people in the country since last week for allegedly spreading false information about the health of political leaders.
Magufuli had repeatedly denied that Covid-19 was spreading in the east African country and claimed without evidence that vaccines are dangerous, suggesting instead that people pray and inhale herbal-infused steam.
Despite numerous requests by the World Health Organization, Tanzania has not published any statistics on cases since May, when it registered 509 infections. It has no known testing programme in place and health officials have been forbidden from mentioning the virus.
But the number of deaths of people experiencing breathing problems reportedly grew and, earlier this month, the US embassy warned of a significant increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in Tanzania since January. Days later the presidency announced the death of John Kijazi, Magufuli’s chief secretary.
Soon after, the death was announced of the vice-president of the semi-autonomous island region of Zanzibar, whose political party had earlier reported that he had Covid-19.
Critics said that Magufuli’s dismissal of the threat from Covid-19, as well as his refusal to lock down the country as others in the region had done, may have contributed to many unknown deaths.
“He has never worn a mask, he has been going to mass public gatherings without taking any precautions that people are taking all around the world,” Lissu told the BBC last week. “This is someone who has repeatedly and publicly trashed established medicine. He’s relied on prayers and herbal concoctions of unproven value,” he said.
Relatives of Covid-19 victims, health workers and opposition figures have held Magufuli responsible for potentially thousands of deaths.