Tanzania opposition slams 'state of denial' over coronavirus

Coronavirus criticism: Magufuli, pictured in Pretoria last May at the inauguration of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (AFP Photo/Michele Spatari) (AFP/File)

Dar es Salaam (AFP) - Tanzania's main opposition leader on Wednesday accused the government of hiding information on the coronavirus and failing to take the pandemic seriously.

Tanzania is one of few countries in Africa that has not taken extensive measures against the virus, and President John Magufuli is among a handful of world leaders still playing down the seriousness of the disease.

"Our cases are shooting up at an alarming rate while many countries are now flattening the curve," said Freeman Mbowe, of the opposition Chadema party, in a speech broadcast online.

Tanzania recorded its first case of coronavirus on March 16 -- and in a little over two weeks cases have leapt from 32 to 480 with 16 deaths.

While relatively small on a global scale, the growth is among the highest in East Africa, where most countries have implemented lockdowns, curfews, and strict social distanncing measures.

In Tanzania, schools and universities have been shut but markets, bus stops and shops bustle as usual.

Opposition members have also criticised the government for waiting a week to announce new cases, after Magufuli on April 22 said the ministry of health was "causing panic".

"I have information that there are many people who recovered but these are not given priority in announcing. I see they are competing to announce new cases and deaths which are causing panic," the president said.

Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa provided an update Wednesday amid mounting pressure to do so.

Mbowe questioned the veracity of the numbers released.

"We see people dying and their burials are supervised by the government under strict conditions but yet it is not telling us they died of coronavirus. There is no transparency and when people have no information, you provide room for rumours. The government is telling us only 16 died of coronavirus but this is a joke," he said.

Mbowe said that Magufuli, who has been staying in his home town of Chato in northwestern Tanzania since March 28, was in a "state of denial".

Magufuli has claimed God would protect Tanzanians from the virus, and has urged people to keep working as usual.

"This is time to build our faith and continue praying to God and not depending on facemasks. Don't stop going to churches and mosques for prayers. I'm sure this is just a change of wind and it will go like others have gone," Magufuli said at a church in Dodoma last month.

Magufuli came to power as a corruption-fighting "man of the people" but has since been criticised for his authoritarian leadership style, with rights groups citing a crackdown on the media and critics during his rule.

He is due to run for a second term in polls due in October.