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George Russell in New York

The World Health Organization has pleaded with Tanzania to take more measures to control the coronavirus pandemic as more than nine months have passed since the east African nation provided any update on cases.

John Magafuli, Tanzania’s president, last year declared the country “coronavirus free” but doctors and health officials are sceptical.

The Zanzibar regional government announced that its first vice-president Seif Sharif Hamad died on February 17 as a result of Covid-19.

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One of Magafuli’s closest advisers, John Kijazi, died the next day, officially of a heart attack, but at his funeral Magafuli led prayers to defeat unnamed “respiratory diseases” ravaging the country. “Maybe we have wronged God somewhere. Let us all repent,” he told mourners.

Tanzania has reported 509 cases with 21 deaths among its 58m people, but has not released any data since May 2020. Neighbouring Kenya, with a population of about 52.6m, has identified more than 104,000 cases, with 1,817 fatalities.

Shoppers use a hand-washing station as they enter a market in Dodoma, Tanzania

“This situation remains very concerning,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement on Sunday. “I renew my call for Tanzania to start reporting Covid-19 cases and share data.”

He said the government needed to step up public awareness that the pandemic was continuing around the world.

“I also call on Tanzania to implement the public health measures that we know work in breaking the chains of transmission, and to prepare for vaccination,” Tedros said.

The WHO head said several Tanzanians travelling to neighbouring countries and beyond have tested positive for Covid-19.

“This underscores the need for Tanzania to take robust action both to safeguard their own people and protect populations in these countries and beyond,” he said.

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