NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Tanzania’s President John Magufuli is well, the country’s prime minister said Friday, rejecting opposition claims that the COVID-denying president, who's been out of public view for nearly two weeks, is seriously sick with the virus.
Kassim Majaliwa said Magufuli is busy with office duties, and called on the public to ignore widespread reports that he is unwell. “He is fine and doing his responsibilities,” Majaliwa said, without disclosing the president’s whereabouts.
Magufuli had controversially claimed that Tanzania has defeated COVID-19 through prayer last year and that there were no more cases.
The prime minister said Magufuli, who has not been seen in public for 13 days, asked him to convey his greetings to residents in the country’s southern town of Njombe.
“The president has a lot to do,” he said, adding that the president had delegated some duties to his aides.
Magufuli’s absence is unusual as he is known for frequent public speeches and appearances on state television several times a week.
Opposition politicians also raised questions about the president’s health after at least one official close to him died recently.
Magufuli was last seen in public on Feb. 27 at the swearing-in ceremony of his chief of staff. The event was at the State House government offices in Dar es Salaam, the East African country’s largest city.
Exiled opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who lost the October presidential election to Magufuli, claimed in a series of Tweets since Wednesday that the president had been flown to India in critical condition after first being taken to neighboring Kenya for COVID-19 treatment.
Lissu lives in Belgium due to fears for his life after a government crackdown on opposition politicians who were calling for peaceful protests over alleged massive voting irregularities.
He had returned to Tanzania in July to campaign in the election. Lissu started his self-imposed exile from exile following a failed assassination attempt in 2017 in which he was shot 16 times.
On Thursday, Constitutional Affairs Minister Mwigulu Nchemba issued threats to those speculating on the president's absence.
“A head of state is not a head of a jogging club who should always be around taking selfies,” Nchemba posted on his social media accounts.
"Those who are breaking the law, think about what the penal code says on cybercrime. The government is monitoring,” he said.
Magufuli announced last June that Tanzania had defeated COVID-19 through three days of prayer. The country, one of Africa’s most populous with 60 million people, in April stopped providing statistics about the numbers of people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 or deaths from the disease to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The government has fired some officials who questioned Magufuli’s assertion that nobody was falling ill from COVID-19 in Tanzania. The government tried to encourage trade and foreign tourism, seeking to avoid the economic pain of neighbors who imposed lockdowns and curfews. It did not ban public gatherings or promote wearing masks, and Magufuli promoted herbal remedies for those who fell ill with what he called “breathing problems.”
However, people leaving Tanzania reported that hospital intensive care units were filled with patients with severe respiratory illnesses. Others said that burials were being held at night to hide the numbers of deaths. Migrants in other countries from Tanzania were found to have COVID-19.
In February, Magufuli appeared to acknowledge the existence of the disease after at least one top official in his administration died of it.