Covid-19 and elections: Kenyan and Tanzanian perspective


Tanzania and Kenyan response to COVID-19 was largely informed by their upcoming general elections in 2020 and 2022respectively. Initially, elites cues were concerned about COVID-19 risks that temporarily led to both countries implementing regulations aligned to those of the world health organization. Thus, health institutions had some form of independence and credibility to guide the citizens in the first few months. In subsequent months, this paper argues that elite’ cues in both countries abandoned the health measures and embarked on political mobilizations, albeit using different strategies that ultimately influenced public opinion on pandemic response. For Tanzania, the government argued that they had successfully eliminated COVID-19 hence relaxed the rules while encouraging their citizens to return to normalcy.

On the other hand, the Kenya government transferred responsibilities of health to individuals and implicitly re-opened the economy through the relaxation of some regulations while strategically abandoning the implementations of others. In both countries, elite cues’ interests prevailed, although each country had its unique circumstances. In Tanzania, the president cast doubt of health institutions guidelines, which virtually affected public opinion, while Kenya, elite cues behavior characterized by flouting of regulations coupled with the accusation of corruption in the ministry of health influenced public opinion on the gravity of the pandemic. Overall, both countries’ political parties embarked on campaigns where pandemic was not central in messaging, hence affecting previous COVID 19 response gains.


Keywords: covid-19; elections; Elite cues; institutions; political parties; public opinion




Universally, elections are for legitimizing governments and a means of acquiring power hence making citizens engagement central in this process. Therefore, citizens’ engagements through mobilization by political parties and campaigns by elites are fundamental in the electioneering process. These political events entail long and short-term activities that culminate in polling day. Mostly, these activities require the mobilization of citizens by political apparatus that include parties and elite cues. However, the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent regulations were contradictory to political processes such as crowd gatherings. As such, there were temporarily suspended as countries focused on battling the pandemic (Cucinotta and Vanelli,2020). Inevitably, the magnitude of the pandemic and resources required international cooperation, regional and local cooperation (Ali et at,2020). 

Notwithstanding the risk associated with COVID- 19, individual and group responses are closely correlated with their political ideology (Barrios & Hochberg, 2020). Generally, perceptions influence human behavioral change; hence, institutions’ and elites’ credibility are essential aspects of shaping public opinion. Also, political leanings and media preference may inform individuals’ perceptions of certain issues. Ojiagu et al (2020) argue that COVID -19 outbreaks in Africa have illuminated already existing mistrust between the citizenry and their governments. Thus, a considerable number of people circumvented health officials’ guidelines or simply ignored mostly in rural areas. Larson et al. (2011) lament that scientific evidence is usually adequate while convincing the general population on health-related matters. Thus, for significant public awareness, social-cultural, political, psychological, and economic factors are fundamental in shaping public opinion and behavior in response to the pandemic. As such, in the Kenyan-Tanzania context, elite cues were central in shaping public opinion and behavior towards COVID-19 response.

Initially, Kenyan and Tanzania’s response to COVID-19 outbreaks aligned with the world health organization with support from elite cues. Thus, both countries embarked on restrictions that adversely affected their economies, leading to massive layoffs and collapse of business (Ozil,2020). For instance, in Tanzania, the banking sector, tourism, agriculture, and manufacturing were hardest hit by these restrictions (Saleh, 2020). Thus, institutions responsible for health were elevated in both countries in the response of the outbreak hence gaining favorable public opinion. The success of institutions in shaping citizens’ opinions and behavior can be attributed to the support of elite cues at the begging of the pandemic in both countries. Furthermore, the efforts of health institutions were equally supported by the media, which aided in swaying public opinion on COVID -19 risks. Therefore the majority of people were well conversant with mitigation measures outlined concerning the pandemic ( Byanaku and Ibrahim, 2020)

This paper argues that political and economic interests that were primarily advanced by elite’ cues’ interests in Kenyan and Tanzania outweighed health interests. Furthermore, institutions that were anchored on elite cues dwindled as their behavior did not reflect the ideal propagated by these institutions. For instance, Tanzania president cast doubt on COVID -19 testing process and results, while in Kenya, elite cues openly flouted health rules. Moreover, there were accusations of corruption in Kenya’s ministry of health, which swayed public perception and, by extension, influenced their COVID-19 response behavior.

The paper relied on descriptive research design to collect and analyze data concerning the two-country response to COVID 19 pandemic. Secondary data was largely collected from newspapers, articles, and reports, while primary data was obtained from interviews and focused groups’ discussions, which culminated in analyzing data thematically according to the objective of the study. Thus, health institutions, elite’s cues, and political parties in both countries were interrogated and how their activities influenced public opinion and behavior towards pandemic.


Institutional trust 

Hakhverdian and Mayne ((2012) argue that the level of institutional trust varies from country to country based on public perception. Moreover, factors such as the level of education influence institutional trust. In the Kenyan-Tanzania context, institutional trust is highly influenced by elites’ political opinions rather than empirical evidence of its performance. At the begging of the pandemic, citizens of both countries readily cooperated with institutions responsible for combating the Coronavirus. The institutional trust concerning the virus in the early stages of the pandemic was relatively high due to media campaigns as well as general support by elite’ cues. In Tanzania, institutional trust on the Coronavirus dwindled after the president discredited government agencies responsible for testing. This was followed up by Tanzania’s government actions, including the sacking of a deputy health minister who had questioned the president wisdom on the pandemic matters (Saleh, 2020).

Interestingly, Tanzania discredited institutions responsible for testing and mitigation while questioning the effectiveness of testing kits acquired from the international community. These doubts were led by Tanzania president, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry hence making it easier to sway public opinion (Maina, 2020). Secondly, Tanzania refocused on internal solutions, including religion and traditional medicines from Madagascar (Saidi Mpota, 2020). Later, educational, cultural, and economic institutions were given leeway to re-open the country’s economy to demonstrate that Tanzania was ‘corona free. ‘ The presidency and other government branches eased social distancing rules, wearing masks, opening schools, sports, and other activities. Thus, the president, who months earlier, avoided handshakes changed his behavior to freely interact with people to demonstrate that the country had successfully dealt with the pandemic. While meeting the president of Uganda, the Tanzania delegation was contrasted by not complying with health organizations.

Kenya president largely delegated the coronavirus fight on various institutions and professionals in action and conveying official government policy. Thus, several task forces were formed with the mandate of mobilizing resources and other logistical functions in the overall response to the pandemic. Unfortunately, these institutions faced credibility issues due to what was perceived as mismanagement of resources when the majority of Kenyans were facing economic hardships (Wasike, 2020). The information led to dwindling trust in institutions’ ability to effectively handle the pandemic. Intact, some quotas perceived officials in those institutions as exaggerating the severity of the Coronavirus to access more funds for their interests. Also, the public demanded uplifting of restrictions that including suspension of social-cultural events such as funeral and weddings in a country is that is highly conservative.

The government responded by repacking the COVID 19 guidelines to emphasize individuals’ responsibility rather than institutions as the most effective strategy. Thus, restrictions were uplifted, including religious gatherings and traveling, while giving individuals more leeway in making decisions concerning their health. The easing of restrictions and shifting of responsibilities from the government was a strategy aimed at speeding government-sponsored constitutional amendment intentions while avoiding backlash for any future pandemic relapse. The Kenyan ministry of health plea to political elites and the public to prevent crowding was largely ignored by both parties. These can be attributable to a lack of public trust in the health ministry, especially after corruption scandals. Secondly, Kenya’s culture, where political leaders have a cult following, especially at the ethnic level,  has a considerable influence on public opinion or behavior concerning the pandemic.

The response and adherence to guidelines in both countries took a political dimension hence disregarding science informing policy. The election implications in Tanzania influenced elite cues responses based on their parties’ affiliations. President Magufuli and other ruling party leaders in CCM (Chama cha Mapinduzi) cast skepticism on the corona scourge. The president declared divine intervention as the ultimate strategy of combating the virus and subsequently announcing victory over the pandemic in subsequent months. Thus, as the political elite, the president influenced the masses about combating the pandemic by encouraging them to return to pre-COVID status. Eventually, restrictions’ including public gatherings, funerals, weddings, and so on, were uplifted.

Moreover, Tanzania opened its borders to boost their tourism and subsequently re-opened schools and all major sectors of the economy. Although CHADEMA (Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo) and other opposition parties protested the government directive of suspending testing and other guidelines of combating the virus, they embraced other policies that largely favored their political cause. They resumed their political campaigns without adhering to social distance regulation.

Kenya’s elite cues response to the pandemic outbreak, just like Tanzania was twofold: they were at the forefront in urging the general public to comply with health officials’ regulations and restrictions. Furthermore, top government officials made a gesture of taking a pay cut to ease the virus’s economic burden (Wambua et al., 2020). The government contracted private and public elite cues in the form of a task force to coordinate efforts associated with fighting COVID 19, including raising funds. The government also introduced social programs aimed at helping the vulnerable, especially people in the informal settlements. Later, elite cues, especially those in support for constitutional amendments, embarked on rallies, and inevitably the ‘opposition’ embraced the same strategy. These rallies were in contradiction with safety mitigations rules because political prowess in Kenya is determined by the ability to have large crowds. Also, with high unemployment, money is used to rue people into these rallies, and some of the tactics include transporting ‘supporters’ from one region to another.

Therefore, in Kenya, the government used official guidelines to advance their political interest while victimizing perceived opponents. Thus, government-affiliated elite’ cues flouted health guidelines rules, including traveling restrictions or social distancing without any form of repercussion. Government-aligned elite cues held meetings to garner support for the constitutional amendment. Conversely, those affiliated to the deputy vice president are perceived as non-supportive of these constitutional amendments and were occasionally harassed and arrested for organizing small meetings. Overall, elite cues tended not to adhere to guidelines set by the government; thus, elite cues in Kenya led to shaping public opinion on the pandemic, especially in rural areas where the majority of these leaders have a fanatical following. Unfortunately, most of those leaders isolated themselves without necessarily using their public capital to inform people of corona-related corona-related issues. On the other hand, in urban centers, people pressured the government to uplift restrictions due to what they considered partisan approaches in tackling the pandemic. Moreover, some people circumvented restrictions by implicit engaging in various activities that were officially prohibited.

Usually, media is supposed to set the agenda; however, the case of Kenya, the action of elite cues determines the main news item. Thus, COVID-19 was a significant news item until the political elites started dominating the news cycle through rallies and other public forums.

Political parties are central in mobilizing the general public on political, social, and economic issues through their various platforms. Besides forming the government, legitimizing, and recruiting new members, political parties are crucial in the civic education of a wide range of issues. However, the corona pandemic in Kenya and Tanzania exposed political parties’ failure to use civic education in fighting the pandemic. Political parties in Tanzania and Kenya abdicated their duty of civic education on corona measures. The lack of civic education speared by political parties is a problem that has persisted in Kenya despite previous efforts showing some progress (frinkel et al.,2012). They used the corona pandemic to advance their political capital. Therefore, these political parties only participated in informing the public on the Coronavirus in the initial stages of the pandemic outbreak. This was largely informed by prevailing wisdom at the world level, which dictated elites and government to take a leading role in rallying the public in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, the media in both states supported health institutions, which were characterized by uniform messages in line with official policies.

Unfortunately, the majority of political parties in Kenya are not institutionalized; hence their agenda is usually aligned to that leader (wanyama, 2010). These political parties lack ideology and hardly survive beyond an election as they are mere vehicles for acquiring or maintaining power (Elischer, 2008). Historically, Kenya’s political elites have never been keen on civic education as they perceive such programs as a threat to their political capital. This stance is aligned with Kenya’s orientation that is characterized by euphoria and tribalism (color, 2007). As such, uninformed citizens are easy to manipulate in advancing selfish political agendas. Thus, Kenya’s political parties were not keen to educate people on COVID -19 pandemic mitigations as a strategy to use it as a political tool. Therefore, party leaders embarked on the countrywide mobilization of masses on constitutional matters, no official communications on the need to avoid crowding.

Since independence, Tanzania politics has been dominated by the CCM party, which has ruled the country for over five decades (paget,2017). However, in the last two decades, the main opposition party has gained momentum by exposing CCM corruption. Although the main opposition party was against CCM and president polices on COVID-19, they also embarked on campaigns for the 2020 general election using the same tactics used by the ruling party, including large crowds. The main opposition party CHADEMA, failed in civic education, especially after criticizing the ruling party for negligence in the fight against the pandemic. Therefore, the Tanzania political parties, just like Kenya, promoted the elites’ interests while disregarding safety.

The two countries employed different strategies with Tanzania deviating from establishing an international protocol of COVID 19 responses. Their new strategy entailed using alternative remedies such as steam therapy from Madagascar and other local remedies. These measures were followed up with an official declaration of the country ‘COVID 19 free’ without a scientific proof (Ben-Hur, 2020). The country rejected all COVID -19 assistance and subsequently opened its economy into pre-pandemic status hence allowing sports, schools, and other public gatherings. Furthermore, the Tanzania government withdrew from regional cooperation in battling the pandemic, culminating in diplomatic wrangles with the Kenyan government.

Moreover, Tanzania withdrew from regional cooperation in the fight against the pandemic. On the other hand, Kenya adhered to international norms while attracting funds from the international community to combat the pandemic. The official policy was to flatten the curve and gradual re-opening of the country. However, the Kenyan government, faced by economic realities and political interests, prevailed over the health factors just like Tanzania.

This paper argues that Political interests versus health interests in both countries may have informed earlier Tanzania’s stance as well as Kenya’s silent relegation and flouting health rules. In Kenya, constitutional change was imminent with fixed constitutional timelines. As a result, the balance between enforcing strict health measures and advancing political activities was a delicate task to elites’ cues considering that the prevailing political environment was tired of the forthcoming election in both countries. So, this paper argues that Kenya transformed its approach silently to relax and even ignore the rules to allow politics to carry on. These rallies were commenced using the Tanzania style without health guidelines.

Economic interests versus health, the stability of any state lies in the growth and development of their economy. Therefore COVID was parallel to economic growth characterized by massive layout unemployed and high cost of living. As a result, the citizens became desperate. Based on economic hardship, a receipt for political instability, the Kenya government loosens, albeit implicitly, in some instances. For instance, the curfew hours were not strictly enforced or other guidelines in public transport, religious institutions, and people’s free movement. This article argues that faced with economic collapse and health risks, elite cues were in a dilemma whether to salvage the economy or maintain public health safety guidelines. In Kenyan, the government response was twofold: revive the economy while transferring health responsibilities to citizens to protect their political capital.

This paper observes that the dynamic response to COVID-19 in Kenya and Tanzania was partly attributed to the prevailing political intrigues. That is upcoming elections in Tanzania as well as election connected constitutional amendments in Kenya. Available evidence showed that several months after the pandemic break, there were similarities in terms of elite cues response. In both countries, elite cues’ behavior showed that they disregarded the severity of COVID-19. The behavior emanated from political interests at stake. Furthermore, institutional trust in credibility in both countries was pegged on the perception of elite cues coupled with institutional malpractice. Thus, institutions became absolute after they were discredited by elite cues especially those concerned with health guidelines in both countries. In the case of Kenya, corruption accusations damaged the ministry of health credibility. Lastly, political parties failed in their civic education duty while embracing elite cues’ behavior of mobilization the public for political discourse.













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