MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Tanzania in East Africa seems to be experiencing a big spike in COVID-19 cases. Videos on social media show hurried night burials and people collapsing on the streets. But the government is slow to report cases, and the country's president has become a coronavirus denier. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Tony says when two of his close relatives got sick with coronavirus, they went to a hospital in the capital, Dar es Salaam. He says the doctors and nurses didn't have protective equipment, so they were just isolating COVID-19 cases, never checking up on them.
TONY: They just lock you up in one of the room of the hospital, and they just leave you there.
PERALTA: His two relatives died, he says, and only a few people were allowed to attend their funeral.
TONY: Just three of them went, and they were buried at night.
PERALTA: We are only using Tony's first name because the Tanzanian government has arrested people for talking about the pandemic. Tony says he wants to talk because he's worried. People in his neighborhood are still going out to eat and drink.
TONY: Bars and pubs still open - restaurants are still open. So it really feels weird. Like, what are these people doing? Do they not know that what's really going on and the dangerous part of it?
PERALTA: When the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in East Africa, President John Magufuli did take action. He canceled schools, and he famously greeted an opposition leader by tapping toes. But he kept his international airports open, and through Lent, he encouraged people to keep going to church because, he said, COVID-19 cannot survive in the body of Christ. Early this month, Magufuli, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, gave a stunning speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOHN MAGUFULI: (Speaking Swahili).
PERALTA: He said he had samples taken from a goat and a sheep and a bird and a papaya and had them labeled with human names. They were sent to Tanzania's National Laboratory.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MAGUFULI: (Speaking Swahili).
PERALTA: The papaya and others tested positive, he claimed - proof his labs were falsifying positive test results to sabotage Tanzania. He went on to say that he had ordered an herbal cure being pushed by the president of Madagascar.
ZITTO KABWE: I think the president is lying, and it is a very dangerous lie.
PERALTA: That is Zitto Kabwe, one of Tanzania's most prominent opposition figures. He says doctors and nurses unions are secretly keeping their own count of COVID-19 cases, and they have told him the cases are seven times more than what the government is reporting.
KABWE: What I can say is that the president is in a panic.
PERALTA: A panic, he says, because Magufuli finds himself in a huge crisis just before a presidential election. He doesn't know how to deal with it, he says, so he has turned to selling false hope and blaming scientists.
KABWE: And that means you are putting the whole effort to fight corona in doubt.
PERALTA: As for Tony, he just wants transparency.
TONY: It's better they speak the truth. Then people will be aware of what's really going on.
PERALTA: He says with the truth, at least people will know how to protect themselves. Tanzania's deputy health minister did not respond to NPR's text messages and phone calls seeking comment.
Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.