Burundi changes tack to fight COVID-19

A medical staff member measures a man's temperature as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus on his arrival of repatriation in Gatumba, on border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in Burundi, on March 18, 2020. (Photo by ONESPHORE NIBIGIRA / AFP)
Burundi’s President Evariste Ndayishimiye is inaugurated in Gitega, Burundi Thursday, June 18, 2020. President Evariste Ndayishimiye took power two months early after the abrupt death of his predecessor Pierre Nkurunziza. (AP Photo/Berthier Mugiraneza)

Burundi’s new President Evariste Ndayishimiye has declared COVID-19 the country’s “biggest enemy”, in a major turnaround for Burundi which has largely ignored the dangers of the virus.

The country’s former president Pierre Nkurunziza, who died suddenly last month, and even Ndayishimiye himself, had until now downplayed the gravity of the pandemic, saying God has spared Burundi from its ravages.

Unlike its neigbouring countries that imposed lockdowns and curfews, Burundi held a full-blown campaign ahead of the may elections, taking few measures to curb the spread of the virus.

The country has reported only 170 cases and one death in two months.

Ndayishimiye spoke late Tuesday after the swearing in of his new government in parliament saying, “From tomorrow (Wednesday), I declare the COVID-19 pandemic the biggest enemy of Burundians, because it is clear it is becoming their biggest concern.”

“We firmly commit ourselves to fight this pandemic.”

He called for “the strict respect for preventative measures which the health ministry will from now on display across the country”.

He reminded citizens that the COVID-19 tests were free as was treatment, warning those who did not get tested when they has symptoms.

“If in future someone does not go and get tested in such a case, it means he wants to contaminate others voluntarily… and he will be considered a sorcerer and treated as severely as one would be,” he said.

Burundi only has a single testing center with fewer than 10 technicians capable of carrying out tests for the virus.

The president promised testing centers would be installed and testing campaigns launched across the country.

“An enemy must be hunted wherever he hides and even when his presence is suspected.

“Everyone must know the coronavirus is a pandemic which transmits easily, and which kills if you take it lightly.”

A high-ranking health ministry official told AFP on condition of anonymity that the turnaround comes after the World Bank donated $5 million (4,4 million euros) last month to help Burundi fight the virus.

In May, Burundi, which has increasingly isolated itself in recent years, expelled a team of World Health Organization experts who were supporting the country’s response to the pandemic.

Nkurunziza, who ruled the East Africa nation for 15 often tumultuous years, died suddenly in June aged 55 of what authorities said was heart failure.

However he became ill less than two weeks after his wife had been flown to a Nairobi hospital for treatment for coronavirus, according to a medical document seen by AFP, and speculation is rife he may have caught the virus.

A medical source told AFP he had suffered “respiratory distress” before dying.

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