Police in Tanzania have arrested four people on suspicion of spreading rumours on social media that President John Magufuli is ill.
The 61-year-old leader, nicknamed the Bulldozer, has not been seen in public for more than two weeks.
Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa said last week that Magufuli was “healthy and working hard”.
But opposition politicians have said he’s in a serious condition after contracting Covid-19 and had been flown abroad for treatment.
“To spread rumours that he’s sick smacks of hate,” Majaliwa said on Friday, adding that he had spoken to him on the phone and that he had sent his greetings to the public.
The four arrests were made in different parts of the country, with the first on Friday, says the BBC.
In response, on Monday, Vice-President Samia Suluhu Hassan told Tanzanians not to listen to rumours.
“It’s quite normal for anybody to be afflicted by illness, to contract flu or a fever. This is the time for Tanzanians to be united through prayer,” she said, without elaborating who she was talking about.
Opposition leader Tundu Lissu told the BBC last week from exile in Belgium, that his sources had told him Magufuli was being treated in hospital for coronavirus in Kenya.
He said the president had also suffered a cardiac arrest and was in a critical condition, but this claim has been denied by several Tanzanian officials.
Another Tanzanian politician told the Associated Press, on condition of anonymity for fear of a backlash, that he had spoken to people close to the president who said he was seriously ill and in hospital.
Magufuli has been accused of playing down the threat posed by the coronavirus and has been criticised for encouraging Tanzanians to rely on prayers, steam therapy and herbal remedies.
Earlier this month, at a funeral for a top presidential aide, Magufuli said Tanzania had defeated Covid-19 last year and would win again this year.
The aide died just hours after the vice-president of the country’s semi-autonomous islands of Zanzibar, who was being treated for Covid-19.
Lissu told the BBC that the government’s silence was fuelling rumours and was irresponsible, and the president’s health should not be a private matter.
Another rumour is that Magufuli is hospitalised in India with Covid-19 and is in a serious condition.
“His Covid denialism in tatters, his prayer-over-science folly has turned into a deadly boomerang,” Lissu tweeted in the early hours of Thursday.
TV footage showed Magufuli in January thanking China’s senior diplomat Wang Yi for turning up without a mask to meet him during a tour of Africa. Magufuli said that demonstrated the minister was aware Tanzania was free of Covid-19.
Other Chinese officials present did wear masks.