Will COVID-19 Kill Democracy?

In Tanzania and elsewhere, the pandemic and creeping authoritarianism are colliding, making both problems far worse.

A supporter of Tanzania’s ruling party holds a sign during the official launch of its official campaign for the October general election in Dodoma, Tanzania, on Aug. 29.
A supporter of Tanzania’s ruling party holds a sign during the official launch of its official campaign for the October general election in Dodoma, Tanzania, on Aug. 29. Ericky Boniphace/AFP/Getty Images

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, its implications for good governance and democracy around the world are of increasing concern. And just as underlying conditions and exposure matter a lot for individual health, those factors are also critical measures of national vulnerability.

Poverty, inadequate public health infrastructure, citizen mistrust, and violent conflict are among the underlying conditions that make countries more susceptible to the pandemic’s ravages. Whereas vulnerable individuals might limit their exposure to prevent illness, though, states should embrace it. They need to expose their efforts to fight the disease to more light. Their success will be measured by their ability to galvanize political will, to demonstrate transparency in the collection and sharing of data, and to avoid politicizing the crisis for domestic or international advantage.

Tanzania is one example of many nations in which a synthesis of underlying conditions and lack of exposure has become toxic.

In Tanzania, a global pandemic is colliding with a turn toward authoritarianism, making both problems far worse.

When President John Magufuli came to power in 2015 elections, he was lauded as a “man of the people” willing to take on the fight against corruption and clean up the country’s bloated civil service. But it soon became apparent that his forcefulness on these challenges went hand in hand with a refusal to tolerate dissenting views. As he took the country further and further away from its decadeslong trajectory toward better democratic governance, Magufuli has become better known as “the bulldozer.”

Magufuli’s tenure has been marked by the targeting of the country’s political opposition through a 2016 ban on political activities; restrictions on the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly; the arrest and harassment of journalists; and the suspension of independent media outlets. Attacks on journalists and deepening censorship have been carefully tracked by several international organizations, including Reporters Without Borders. According to this group, Tanzania has dropped an astonishing 53 places in its annual World Press Freedom Index since 2016—the year after Magufuli took office. That’s the biggest drop of any country in the world in recent years.

Things in Tanzania got markedly worse in April, when three members of the country’s parliament died from unknown causes within days of each other. Suspecting COVID-19, members of the main opposition party, Chadema, called for the suspension of parliament and COVID-19 testing for all parliamentary members, staff, and families. Chadema Chairman Freeman Mbowe accused the Magufuli government of a cover-up regarding the extent of coronavirus infections in Tanzania. Magufuli’s government was vague in its response, acknowledging the three deaths but leaving speculation about the cause of their deaths unanswered. Late that month, the Tanzanian government submitted its COVID-19 infection data to the World Health Organization, reporting 509 cases and 21 deaths. It has not updated the figures since. It is hard to trust these numbers; scores of observers have noted the difficulty many African countries have had effectively collecting data.

In the intervening months, Magufuli has officially suspended parliament. In May, he also dismissed the head of Tanzania’s national laboratory—which leads COVID-19 testing—and he has since declared that the coronavirus was “absolutely finished” throughout the nation. He’s gone on to insist that credible national elections will be held in October, although that seems unlikely.

In addition to frequently violent attacks on the opposition, authorities have attempted to prevent presidential candidates from submitting required nomination forms while arbitrarily disqualifying others from competing. In August, the government also banned local media from broadcasting foreign-made content without first receiving the government’s written approval. The move is another example of the government tightening its authoritarian grip while also hindering an effective response to COVID-19.

The stringent new regulations also require foreign journalists to be accompanied by a government-appointed officer when covering local issues. And a tax on social media enacted the same month has increased the cost of using the internet, while posting what the government deems as “rumors”—which could be anything from information about the pandemic to criticism of the government—can now land citizens in jail.

In short, in Tanzania, a global pandemic is colliding with a turn toward authoritarianism, making both problems far worse.

Tanzania is not the only country where the pandemic is meeting rising authoritarianism. Magufuli’s denials of the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of transparency in the collection and sharing of data on rates of infections and deaths have raised concern at the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Neighboring Kenya closed its border with Tanzania in May due to coronavirus concerns.

A strikingly similar situation has unfolded in Burundi, where the country’s president is thought to have died from COVID-19 after months of official denials about the disease’s seriousness. The government even encouraged citizens to attend religious services and other large gatherings in the country. In Madagascar, too, the country’s authoritarian president has been dogged by criticism, including from the WHO, about his government’s response, or lack thereof, which has featured the promotion and distribution—including to Tanzania—of an unproven “herbal cure.”

Conversely, it seems to be no coincidence that those countries in Africa that have demonstrated the most effective COVID-19 responses are also the most democratic and transparent in the region. These include Senegal and Ghana, which have led the continent in the development of affordable and effective rapid testing for the new coronavirus. Senegal, specifically, has stood out for its relative success, ranking No. 2 globally in Foreign Policy’s COVID-19 Global Response Index.

These two success stories should serve as a lesson for leaders in Tanzania and elsewhere: Secrecy around COVID-19 infections and poor governance have gone hand in hand. Some observers have argued that the pandemic might serve to strengthen democratic resistance and expose the weakness of authoritarian rule. It seems more likely that the vulnerable countries will get sicker before they can start to recover.

Travis L. Adkins is a lecturer in African and Security Studies at Georgetown University and host of the On Africa Podcast

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organization Vanguard Africa. Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT

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