Between July last year and February 2021, Karonga District on the northern tip of Malawi has lost two legislators to coronavirus, but most residents and travellers still downplay the pandemic.
This is no surprise for David Sibale, the district director of health and social services in Karonga, the gateway to Tanzania, where President John Magufuli doubts coronavirus existence, testing and precautions.
“The corona disease has been eliminated thanks to God,” Magufuli told unmasked worshippers in the Tanzanian capital, Dodoma, last June.
His tone has ramped up resistance to coronavirus prevention among Malawians in the border strip who speak common languages, intermarry and trade with Tanzanians.
Sibale is concerned that some Malawians now neglect simple coronavirus preventive measures despite mass awareness campaigns.
“Both sides have to adhere to the international health regulations, which advocate for the control of transmissible diseases from one country to another in order to protect the public,” he explains.
The conflicting messages make the Malawi-Tanzania border a dangerous divide.
Police at Malawi’s side Songwe Border Post in Karonga require all travellers to abide by newly-gazetted coronavirus rules to always wear masks. However, Tanzanian counterparts at Kasumulu across the Songwe River look indifferently as crowds remove the face masks before crossing into Tanzania.
A collective priority
The traffic personifies the free movement of people and goods promoted by the Southern African Development Community (Sadc).
However, the regional bloc looks hapless as the disparities in the fight against the coronavirus disease threaten to speed up coronavirus transmission among travellers and their contacts.
This contradicts the common approach Sadc ministers of health adopted in March 2020 at an extraordinary meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
“Keeping the region safe is a collective priority,” stated the host minister Ummy Mwalimu.
He described the gathering as “a commitment towards harmonising our approaches based on technical advice from the World Health Organisation [WHO], Africa CDC and other expert organisations.”
Mwalimu stressed: “We need to be ready and respond collectively in ensuring that we contain the virus if it enters any of our countries or delaying the spread together; hence, mitigating its impact. We should not underestimate the problem associated with Covid-19.”
As Tanzania has backtracked and health experts warn that the regional transmission of South Africa’s unique Covid-19 strain shows why Sadc member States need to unify their fight against the fast-spreading virus.
At Kaporo Health Centre near Songwe border, clinician Ruth Gumbo constantly sends back patients to mind the distance or come back when they mask up.
She explains: “Tanzania is very close and most Malawians here go there and frequently interact with Tanzanians, so they believe that Covid-19 is no more.
“When you tell them to sit far apart and wear face masks, they laugh it off, citing what they hear from Tanzania as gospel truth.”
Senior Chief Mwakaboko of Karonga North says both residents and travellers in the rice-growing border zone “are living dangerously”.
He laments: “Most people in my territory constantly interact with our Tanzania neighbours, who are still living as if Covid-19 doesn’t exist anymore.
“When Malawians go to Tanzania, they remove the mask for fear of reprisals, exposing themselves to coronavirus infections when they go into crowded zones.
“If they don’t, even those who have grown up travelling without any documents are beaten if they don’t produce passports and Covid-19 certificates. We wonder why a mask is treated as a super-spreader of the virus, not preventive wear.”
The traditional leader urges Malawi to work closely with Tanzania and step up mass awareness to combat “the dangerous wave of misinformation”.
Similarly, the Sadc Council of Ministers called for strong and coordinated measures for the region to address the impact of Covid-19 which threatens to reverse the gains made in regional development and integration.
After Magufuli declared Tanzania “Covid-free”, some top government officials have been mocking neighbours who have imposed measures to stop coronavirus transmission.
Tanzania’s Minister of Health Dorothy Gwajima said the country would not procure Covid-19 vaccines, touting steam inhalations while sipping unproven herbal remedies in the glare of TV cameras. Neither the herbs nor steam therapy have been approved by the WHO.
“We are not yet satisfied that those vaccines have been clinically proven safe,” she told journalists, flanked by unmasked government officials.
Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, encourages Tanzania to accept the vaccine and preventive measures “to protect its population and neighbouring countries”.
“Science shows that vaccines work,” Moeti said during a virtual press briefing.
Sadc and African Union (AU) have rolled out facilities to help member States procure Covid-19 vaccines faster and cheaper as a bloc.
‘Dangerous for everyone’
Tanzania’s stance has come into question following the death of Zanzibar First Vice-President Seif Sharif Hamad, 77, who has been undergoing Covid-19 treatment in hospital. Magufuli didn’t mention the virus in his message of condolences and profound shock.
In a weekly media briefing, John Nkengasong—the director of the Africa CDC, the AU Centres for Disease Control and Prevention—urged Tanzania to review its stance “as Africa needs a collaborative spirit on Covid-19”.
“Not cooperating will make it dangerous for everybody,” warned Nkengasong.
A week after hauling a secondhand vehicle from Dar es Salaam, a Malawian driver disguised as Thokozani returned home with a persistent dry cough and loss of smell, but insisted on inhaling steam and drinking herbal concoctions “the Tanzanian way”.
“With Covid-19, going to Tanzania is a suicide mission. We interact with unmasked people across over 1 000km because our landlocked country cannot do without the vital goods that arrive through the port of Dar es Salaam daily,” says the man later diagnosed with Covid-19 at Kameza Emergency Treatment Unit in Blantyre.