Although masks were nowhere to be seen, Tanzania’s first female president took a bold stance against her Covid-19 denying predecessor in her first major speech since taking over from John Magufuli, who died in March.

“We cannot isolate ourselves as if we are an island,” Samia Suluhu Hassan said last week, signalling that she would not only end Magufuli’s coronavirus denialism, but would also act to improve strained relations with investors and multinational companies.

Addressing government and military officials, the former vice-president announced plans to appoint a panel of scientific experts to advise on how best to curb the spread of the pandemic, a radical shift from Magufuli, who gained notoriety as one of the few world leaders who denied the virus posed any threat.

The speech suggested that Hassan, who studied economics in the UK and has worked at the UN, would seek to distance herself from the legacy of her former boss and raised cautious hopes among observers that Tanzania could change course after five years of creeping authoritarianism and growing isolation under Magufuli.

“We are extremely encouraged with the signals that we are hearing from the new leadership in Tanzania,” said Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, who was concerned after Magufuli stopped the publication of Covid-19 statistics in May.

“[Hassan] has not been happy with the way Magufuli was running the country, but she didn’t have a strong say. Therefore, I expect more than what we have already witnessed,” said Salim Said Salim, a Zanzibar-based political analyst. However, he sounded a note of scepticism: “Many in Tanzania hope for the best but they prepare for the worst.”

Magufuli was elected president in 2015 as the candidate for the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi on promises to tackle corruption. Yet he became increasingly repressive, cracking down on dissent. Last October, he won a second term in an election marred by intimidation.

Opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who went into exile in Belgium after an assassination attempt in 2017 and returned briefly to contest the election in July, is also considering coming home for good. The new president, he said, was “indubitably turning her back on Magufuli. What she has done purely by her statements is a major repudiation of Magufuli. Magufulism without Magufuli is not an option for her. Nor is it an option for the country”.

Since taking over in late March, Hassan has appointed her own finance and foreign ministers, sacked the head of the tax authority, who had alienated investors, and started purging Magufuli’s network in government.

But she kept some stalwarts including health minister Dorothy Gwajima — who went on national television to explain that a vegetable smoothie would ward off coronavirus — while the administration, bureaucracy and party structure she inherited remain packed with her predecessor’s allies.

A senior western diplomat compared Hassan to Margaret Thatcher, the former UK prime minister. “[Thatcher] was basically looked down on by a lot of establishment guys, but she got the upper hand,” the diplomat said. “Hassan has to balance that as well: continuing what made Magufuli popular while changing what didn’t work.”

Magufuli was dismissive of foreign investors, prompting critics to dub Tanzania the “Cuba of east Africa”. He banned exports of unprocessed ore and led a $190bn tax dispute against a global mining company that is now part of Barrick Gold.

Hassan was quoted as saying that she “wants challenges on taxes and other issues” with mining companies quickly resolved, adding: “Let’s not reach a point where we start to flex our muscles against investors.”

Her comments were welcomed by an executive at a natural resource company: “She’s saying the right things. Magufuli not only did not have an understanding of what incentives investors need but, also, he had no interest. He didn’t even pick up the phone.”

During her first trip abroad as president, Hassan on Sunday signed an agreement in Uganda with President Yoweri Museveni and France’s Total to build a long-delayed oil pipeline linking their countries.

For Margarita Dimova, head of intelligence at strategic advisory firm Africa Practice: “The new president has sent a lot of reassuring signals quickly”

“The pendulum appears to be swinging back, after a very testing period for the private sector,” Dimova added. “There is potential for reframing Tanzania’s image among international investors. But like any transition, this one would entail uncertainty. She will have to counter some pushback from within CCM.”

A telecoms investors said Hassan “wants to get closer to foreign investors. She’s slowly purging those who were close to Magufuli. Those are good signs — but it is still too early to cheer.” A senior government official stressed that Hassan was implementing the party’s policies, just with a “different style”.

“We are still dealing with a party that has a sort of knee-jerk anti-market and anti-free speech instincts,” said a senior western donor. “As happy as I am, I don’t think we’ll have a liberal democracy with well-run free markets anytime soon.”