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Tanzania COVID U-turn ‘a good move’ – but is it good enough? – Al Jazeera English

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Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania – Esther Mngodo, like other Tanzanians, was relieved to hear this week government officials are finally urging people in the country to take precautions against the coronavirus – and even wear face masks.

“It is a good move,” said Mngodo, a 34-year-old resident of Dar-es-Salaam. “But much more needs to be done to increase public awareness, testing and treatment. Most importantly, we must have a clear strategy on how to navigate through these unprecedented times.”

In a surprise change in the official stance on coronavirus, President John Magufuli on Sunday said the government had not forbidden the wearing of masks and encouraged those who wanted to do so.

However, he warned against what he claimed were faulty face coverings on sale in the country, suggesting that high coronavirus-related death rates worldwide could be linked to the uptake of such products and claiming those in Tanzania’s rural areas were less likely to fall victim to the virus because they tended not to wear them.

“The government has not forbidden mask-wearing. But we have to be careful about which masks we wear. We will perish. Don’t think we’re loved so much. Economic war is bad,” Magufuli told a congregation at a church service in Dar-es-Salaam.

“These masks which we buy in the shops- we’re killing ourselves,” he argued, before advising Tanzanians to either to make the masks themselves or use those produced locally.

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Magufuli has long downplayed the severity of COVID-19, urging Tanzanians to pray, use steam inhalation and embrace local remedies to protect themselves from the respiratory disease. Tanzania stopped releasing infection numbers in April 2020, weeks before Magufuli declared the country coronavirus-free in June through divine intervention.

For Mngodo, the recent U-turn could be a result of what seems to be a deadly resurgence of infection, which has swept across the country over the past few months.

“It appears that the extent of the problem has reached to a point where the government cannot deny the severity of the problem,” said Mngodo, a media consultant.

Announcements of deaths often attributed to “the current pneumonia” or “breathing problems” have flooded social media.

Among the deceased are a number of high-profile individuals, including several university professors, a former governor of the central bank, the country’s chief secretary and Zanzibar’s first vice president, Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad.

Of them, Hamad was the only person confirmed to have been infected by the novel coronavirus, as he texted his COVID-19 test results to the media. As for the others, the public has been left to speculate about the causes of their deaths, at a time when the world is stilling battling the coronavirus pandemic and many common Tanzanians have been touched by the effects of it.

These circumstances have led religious leaders and other critics, particularly on social media, to put pressure on the government to provide clear and consistent guidelines on fighting the pandemic, while also urging individuals to take precautions.

A Tanzanian medical doctor based in the United States, Frank Minja, said the change of mind is welcomed, if long overdue, and could present an opportunity. “We want to encourage [the president] to move faster in implementing what we know to be effective and implement it right away,” he said.

“I don’t want to say it’s too late, because if we say too late then it means we might as well not do anything. And because, by its nature, the pandemic attacks in waves, it is never too late to start doing the right thing,” added Minja, who has been campaigning on social media to raise awareness about the coronavirus.

Dorothy Semu, acting chairperson of the opposition ACT Wazalendo party, criticised Magufuli, saying the measures implemented when the virus first entered the country – including physical distancing and cancellation of large events – should have been kept in place.

“I am a politician but I am also a believer in science,” Semu said. “As leaders responsible for people’s lives it is important that we make our decisions based on facts. It’s like when HIV/AIDS was discovered; some people denied its presence and many lives were lost. So, I expected the president, who is also a scientist, to have continued with the past measures and we would have saved many lives.”

Magufuli in June declared Tanzania ‘coronavirus-free’, thanks to the prayers of its citizens [File: AP Photo]

The new stance by Magufuli – a former teacher and industrial chemist – on mask-wearing seems to have also prompted many other public offices and officials to suddenly come forward and warn people of the dangers of coronavirus and measures individuals should take to protect themselves from the virus.

For instance, the agency which runs Dar-es-Salaam’s rapid transport buses on Monday said passengers would not be allowed to board if not wearing a mask.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health, headed by Dorothy Gwajima who has previously advocated steam inhalation and a vegetable smoothie to treat COVID-19, earlier this week issued a statement warning people against the virus and appealing to them to take precautions.

However, it insisted that it would not be recommending lockdown measures.

“As said by the president, we won last year and the economy continued to grow until we achieved middle-income economy status, and Coronavirus still existed,” said the ministry’s statement.

“We did not set lockdowns, and even now, we will not impose lockdowns because God is on our side.”

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Ontario hospitals may have to withhold care as COVID-19 fills ICUs

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By Allison Martell and Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Doctors in the Canadian province of Ontario may soon have to decide who can and cannot receive treatment in intensive care as the number of coronavirus infections sets records and patients are packed into hospitals still stretched from a December wave.

Canada‘s most populous province is canceling elective surgeries, admitting adults to a major children’s hospital and preparing field hospitals after the number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs jumped 31% to 612 in the week leading up to Sunday, according to data from the Ontario Hospital Association.

The sharp increase in Ontario hospital admissions is also straining supplies of tocilizumab, a drug often given to people seriously ill with COVID-19.

Hospital care is publicly funded in Canada, generally free at the point of care for residents. But new hospital beds have not kept pace with population growth, and shortages of staff and space often emerge during bad flu seasons.

Ontario’s hospitals fared relatively well during the first wave of the pandemic last year, in part because the province quickly canceled elective surgeries.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario told doctors last Thursday that the province was considering “enacting the critical care triage protocol,” something that was not done during earlier waves of the virus. Triage protocols help doctors decide who to treat in a crisis.

“Everybody’s under extreme stress,” said Eddy Fan, an ICU doctor at Toronto’s University Health Network. He said no doctor wants to contemplate a triage protocol but there are only so many staff.

“There’s going to be a breaking point, a point at which we can’t fill those gaps any longer.”

In a statement, the health ministry said Ontario has not activated the protocol. A September draft suggested doctors could withhold life-sustaining care from patients with a less than 20% chance of surviving 12 months. A final version has not been made public.

Ontario’s Science Advisory Table had been forecasting the surge for months, said member and critical care physician Laveena Munshi. During a recent shift she wanted to call the son of a patient only to discover he was in an ICU across the street.

“The horror stories that we’re seeing in the hospital are like ones out of apocalyptic movies,” she said. “They’re not supposed to be the reality we’re seeing one year into a pandemic.”

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In COVID-19 vaccination pivot, Canada targets frontline workers

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By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada is shifting its vaccination campaign to target frontline workers, moving away from a largely age-based rollout as the country tries to get a handle on the raging third wave of the pandemic.

Canada‘s approach thus far has left unvaccinated many so-called “essential workers,” like daycare providers, bus drivers and meatpackers, all of whom are among those at higher risk of COVID-19 transmission. Provinces are now trying to adjust their strategy to tackle the surge driven by new variants.

Targeting frontline workers and addressing occupation risk is vital if Canada wants to get its third wave under control, says Simon Fraser University mathematician and epidemiologist Caroline Colijn, who has modelled Canadian immunization strategies and found “the sooner you put essential workers [in the vaccine rollout plan], the better.”

Initially, Canada prioritized long-term care residents and staff for the vaccines, as well as the very elderly, health workers, residents of remote communities and Indigenous people.

Targeting vaccinations by age made sense early on in a pandemic that ravaged Canada‘s long-term care homes, Colijn said. But now, immunizing those at highest risk of transmission brings the greatest benefit.

“If you protect these individuals you also protect someone in their 60s whose only risk is when they go to the store. … The variants are here now. So if we pivot now, but it takes us two months to do it, then we will lose that race.”

Data released on Tuesday from the Institute of Clinical and Evaluative Sciences showed that Toronto’s neighbourhoods with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections had the lowest vaccination rates, underscoring the disparities in vaccination.

‘IT’S A JUGGERNAUT’

On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a plan to have mobile vaccine clinics target COVID-19 “hotspots” and high-risk worksites, although he stopped short of giving people paid time off to get the shot.

Karim Kurji, medical officer of health in York Region north of Toronto, characterizes the shift in vaccination priority from age to transmission risk as moving from defence to offence.

“It’s a juggernaut in terms of the immunization machinery, and turning it around takes a lot of effort,” Kurji said.

Meanwhile, officials in the western province of Alberta say they are offering vaccines to more than 2,000 workers at Cargill’s meatpacking plant in High River, site of one of Canada‘s largest workplace COVID-19 outbreaks. Provincial officials said in a statement they are looking to expand the pilot to other plants.

Quebec will start vaccinating essential workers such as those in education, childcare and public safety in Montreal, where neighbourhoods with the highest vaccination rates have been among those with the lowest recorded infection rates.

The people doing the highest-risk jobs, from an infectious disease perspective, are more likely to be poor, non-white and new Canadians, health experts say. They are less likely to have paid leave to get tested or vaccinated or stay home when sick and are more likely to live in crowded or multi-unit housing. They need to be prioritized for vaccination and their vaccination barriers addressed, experts say.

Naheed Dosani, a Toronto palliative care physician and health justice activist, said making vaccines available to high-risk communities is not enough without addressing barriers to access.

“The face of COVID-19 and who was being impacted changed dramatically. The variants seemed to take hold in communities where essential workers live. … This [pivot] is a step in the right direction and will hopefully save lives.”

 

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Denny Thomas and Aurora Ellis)

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Canada finance minister: Pandemic an opportunity to bring in national childcare

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OTTAWA (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic and its damaging impact on women has underlined the need for a national childcare plan, which would also help the economic recovery, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Thursday.

Since taking up her job in August, Freeland has repeatedly spoken about a “feminist agenda,” and has said childcare will be part of a stimulus package worth up to C$100 billion ($79.6 billion) over three years. She will unveil details in her April 19 budget.

“I really believe COVID-19 has created a window of political opportunity and maybe an epiphany … on the importance of early learning and childcare,” Freeland told a online convention of Canada‘s ruling Liberal Party.

The budget is set to be a springboard for an election that Liberal insiders say is likely in the second half of the year.

Canadian governments of various stripes have mused about a national childcare program for decades but never acted, thanks in part to the cost and also the need to negotiate with the 10 provinces, which deliver many social programs.

Freeland said a childcare program would help counter “an incredibly dangerous drop” in female employment since the start of the pandemic.

“It is a surefire way to drive jobs and economic growth … you have higher participation of women in the labor force,” Freeland said. “My hope … is that being able to make that economic argument as well is going be to one of the ways that we get this done.”

Freeland, who is taking part this week in meetings of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations and the International Monetary Fund, said U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had told her they saw early learning and child care as a driver for economic recovery.

($1=1.2560 Canadian dollars)

 

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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