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The elections in Burundi, set for May 20, 2020, have been surrounded by concerns about security and transparency. After the 2015 electoral crisis and its aftermath, the fact that President Pierre Nkurunziza did not appear again was welcomed. His party named a successor candidate: Évariste Ndayishimiye.
However, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi warned in March that the “risk of atrocities remains serious.” The security services and youth group of the ruling party known as Imbonerakure continue to harass critics and opposition parties, especially the National Congress for the Liberated Party (CNL). Officials reject these allegations.
Journalists also have restrictions. Iwacu, one of the last independent media outlets, saw four reporters jailed in 2019, and the newspaper recently spoke out against violent threats from a political against him.
Now, the COVID-19 pandemic raises another public safety concern. On March 31, the Government confirmed its first two positive cases, both of Burundian citizens returning from abroad. The Ministry of Health said that they were doing well in the hospital and the Government was tracking your contacts. Reported otherwise on April 2.
When Burundi had no positive cases, a statement from a government spokesperson said there were no positive cases because Burundi was protected by the “grace of God”.
Officials agree to continue the elections.
Before the first cases appeared in Burundi, the government had already restricted travel from affected countries, and most international flights were suspended in mid-March. Overland travel was also limited, slowing cross-border trade. Some goods transport vehicles from Rwanda were blocked at the border, leading to complaints from Rwanda.
Temperature tests have also been running at border points since mid-March:
Ici, the post-frontière of Gatumba vers la #RDC. Les mesures d’hygiène sont en place, les médecins ont eté aussi déployés avec du matériel pour la prize de température. La quarantaine est obligatoire pour les voyageurs qui veulent entrer au #Burundi.#COVID ー 19 #handwashing pic.twitter.com/q1BM8RGSQL
– Yaga Burundi (@YBurundi) March 26, 2020
Preventive measures also concern land borders. This begins on March 15 with the entry ban into Burundi for travelers from Rwanda, which has just registered its first cases of contamination. Prohibition followed by quarantine.
This is the Gatumba border crossing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Hygiene measures have been taken, doctors with equipment to take the temperature have also been deployed. Quarantine is mandatory for travelers who want to enter Burundi.
Officials have promoted preventive measures such as social distancing and the use of publicly installed handwashing points, such as bus stations.
However, after the first cases, officials said no further action would be taken immediately. On April 8, the Minister of Health said that people should continue with their daily activities.
As elsewhere, it is debated whether the measures are sufficient. Bars and markets remain open, and religious and sporting events continue quite normally – like soccer games – that many other countries suspended.
Iwacu reported that many people are concerned and some were leaving the cities to go to their hometowns, raising fears of possible contagion. Economist Faustin Ndikumana stressed that the many independent workers would be the most affected by any future measure of confinement, as they would have difficulties in not allowing themselves to work.
Blogger Apollinaire Nkurunziza is concerned that not everyone follows the directives:
To prevent Coronavirus, l'Université du Burundi to my devices de lavage des mains dans tous les campus et dans toutes les Facultés, aux Restaurants Universitaires…. pic.twitter.com/Gclkpakzwf
– Burundi University (@UB_Rumuri) March 30, 2020
To prevent coronavirus, the University of Burundi has installed handwash points on all campuses and university restaurants …
On April 4, authorities prevented people with dual Burundian nationality from boarding a Belgian repatriation flight. Diplomatic relations have been strained since the 2015 crisis was criticized internationally.
The Government of Burundi has endeavored to assert control, sometimes apparently arbitrary, over internationally related persons and institutions. It has restricted the media and humanitarian agencies and has become the first country to leave the International Criminal Court after having begun investigating possible crimes.
On April 8, Health Minister Thaddée Ndikumana said that 2,936 people have been quarantined so far, with 2,261 already released, after a 14-day state-ordered quarantine. People with possible exposure to COVID-19 were diverted by the Government to stay in selected schools and hotels during the two-week period. Police have arrested those who tried to prevent it.
Those in quarantine have complained about the number of people, lack of beds, medicines, and having to pay the costs, raising fears of increased pollution. Human Rights Watch also noted that some humanitarian organizations were denied access to those in quarantine.
Refugees – several hundred thousand left after the 2015 crisis – are particularly vulnerable, with crowded camps and poor access to health care and food. Cases were reported in the regions of some camps, which have implemented measures such as handwashing points, but lack funding.
The Governments of Burundi and Tanzania are determined to repatriate as many refugees as possible, especially since late 2019. This has continued despite concern about the pandemic and insecurity, albeit more slowly than authorities expected.
The United Nations Refugee Council expressed concern about the pressure exerted on refugees to return “voluntarily”, which makes living conditions more difficult. More than 81,000 have returned since 2017, while the United Nations still registers more than 336,000.
Blogger Aimé Rugira also expressed concern about malnutrition that affects people's immune systems during the pandemic. Some are particularly at risk, such as the homeless and people in crowded neighborhoods.
Opponents and critics worry that officials have downplayed the risks on COVID-19 to avoid criticism over preparation and avoid postponement of elections – political meetings continue while many other countries have postponed elections.
In 2019, the Government avoided declaring a malaria epidemic despite the large increase in infections, which according to the World Health Organization (WHO) reached epidemic levels. This minimization undermined an effective response, and Human Rights Watch expressed fear that it could happen again with the COVID-19 pandemic.
During elections, institutions that show signs of struggling in a crisis may have to pay a price at the polls for that perceived weakness.
Meanwhile, political instability has eroded foreign aid and daily trade, and the pandemic risks causing more economic conflict. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 1.74 million Burundians were in need of humanitarian assistance in February, and 112,000 people were internally displaced.
The Ministry of Health guaranteed sufficient healthcare capacity and published an action plan. Government spokesman Prosper Ntahogwamiye warned of “manipulation” of public opinion by suggesting a lack of supplies or taking action beyond the government's recommendations. He criticized the closure of a French school and a Belgian school, while others remain open.
Iwacu, however, reported that Burundi has around 50 fans for 12 million people.
SOS Médias Burundi reported a leaked letter, dated March 27, from the Kira de Bujumbura Hospital to the Minister of Health, urgently requesting the COVID-19 testing team.
He said that they had received suspicious cases for several weeks, and that although the centers have testing machines, they lack the reactive element. The Ministry of Health replied that only the National Institute of Public Health is equipped for these tests.
The campaign officially begins in late April.