Story and photos by Eddy-Claude Nininahazwe
The ruling class in power in Burundi did not react when the rest of the world was alerted to the dangers of the new coronavirus pandemic.
In March 2020, Burundi’s late president, Pierre Nkurunziza, declared that his country was under divine protection because so many of his countrymen and women were faithful Christians. At that time, no positive case had been officially declared, yet citizens were seeing human lives claimed every day by the coronavirus, which they recognized through simple analysis of the symptoms presented, and despite the silence of the authorities.
A few months later, unnamed sources announced that senior authorities in the government had tested positive. The minister of health was later secretly admitted to a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. Toward the end of May 2020, First Lady Denise Bucumi Nkurunziza (wife of the now late-President Pierre Nkurunziza) was discretely evacuated by an air ambulance of the Amref Flying Doctors, a nongovernmental organization, to Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi, where she tested positive before hiding behind complaints of a stomach ailment.
In the following days, President Nkurunziza was evacuated to a hospital in central east Burundi, where he died. Unofficial sources spoke of his sudden death following complications of COVID-19. A few days later, the government announced that the president had died of a heart attack.
At the beginning of 2021, the Burundian government declared that the country was not safe from COVID-19 after all and, as a result, would have to work to curb the pandemic like other nations had done. This declaration took place one year after the original global alert about the spread of the pandemic, which had previously not worried the Burundian leadership.
The new President promises to be a fighter.
Evariste Ndayishimiye is Burundi’s new president. Just after his inauguration in mid-June 2020, and the swearing in of his government in early July, he promised to face the pandemic of the coronavirus head-on. “The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest enemy of Burundians,” he declared, before adding, “It is clear that COVID-19 has become the main concern of Burundians.”
Paradoxically, exceptional measures have not been taken into account.
Despite President Ndayishimiye’s message, no exceptional measures have been taken in Burundi other than requiring the washing of hands before entering public places. There is no requirement to wear masks or to isolate if infected. Ndayishimiye has announced a subsidy of 50% on the price of the soap and a decrease in the price of water until the pandemic is contained. Until the end of 2020, Burundi was counted among countries where the new coronavirus did not exist.
Finally, on January 11, 2021, the president made a short video alerting Burundians about risks from the virus and announcing new measures of prevention and response, such as the mandatory wearing of masks in public places. At the same time, the Ministry of the Interior announced the closure of land, closure of air borders via the Melchior Ndadaye International Airport, as well as a mandatory seven-day quarantine for all travelers circulating inside the country. The health minister has now established testing centers in Bujumbura, the country’s economic capital.
Prime Minister Alain Guillaume Bunyoni has announced that the wearing of masks should mainly concern those frequenting crowded markets or public transport, and this mixed messaging has confused the public. People have not fully grasped the importance of the new measures to fight the pandemic. Those interviewed in Bujumbura on behalf of Amjambo Africa (who requested anonymity) said they consider it unthinkable that mask-wearing and quarantining measures will be adopted. Classrooms and places of worship remain open.
President Ndayishimiye shifted the messaging.
On January 29, 2021, in Bujumbura, President Ndayishimiye insisted that the coronavirus is not more deadly than malaria or cholera, so there was no need to panic the population by instituting confinement measures. One week later, on February 4, Thaddee Ndikumana, the minister of health, announced to the press that Burundi does not need the vaccine and that patients under treatment had all been cured.
The Ministry of Public Health and AIDS Control reported that at the beginning of February 2021, Burundi officially counted a total of about 40 new cases and only three deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Meanwhile, positive cases of the coronavirus are rumored to be mounting daily in different provinces of the country, along with loss of human life. However, in order to avoid reprisals from the authorities, no one dares attribute the deaths to COVID-19, according to sources close to the families of the dead, who requested anonymity.
Tanzania: President Magufuli denied COVID-19 until his death in March
Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli downplayed the severity of the coronavirus, saying his son had been cured of it, and openly criticized leaders who imposed lockdown measures in their countries. Then, on March 17, 2021, he was pronounced dead (see President John Pombe Magufuli of Tanzania succumbs to illness rumored to be COVID p. …). Tanzania’s vice president said the cause of death was a heart attack, but he is widely believed to have died of COVID. There is no plan in place for a vaccination campaign in Tanzania, and no available data on the evolution of the pandemic.
President Magufuli, a practicing Catholic, frequently told the Tanzanian people that God was protecting them from the virus and urged them to continue to work vigorously. Meanwhile, no protective measures were put in place by the government. This was despite calls from the opposition, and from civil society – including the Tanzanian Bar Association – which urged the Tanzanian leadership to adopt the measures prevalent in other countries worldwide. Last spring in a church in Dodoma, the political capital of Tanzania, Magufuli said he was most concerned about the economic consequences of a lockdown.
But the coronavirus pandemic did not spare the Tanzanian leadership. Zanzibar Island’s Vice President Seif Sharif Hamad died from complications of the coronavirus at Muhimbili Hospital in Dar es Salaam on February 17, where he had been hospitalized since February 9. Two days later, the head of President Magufuli’s office died of COVID-19. Then President Magufuli himself died on March 17. The head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told Samia Suluhu Hassan, the new president of Tanzania, that the WHO is ready to work with Tanzania to fight the virus.
The only official figures on coronavirus infections were published in May 2020, at a time when Tanzania had 509 infections and 21 deaths. The African Union Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) provided the figures, which are considered reliable, although President Magufuli accused the national laboratory of “sabotage.”
Just before his death, however, President Magufuli changed the way he spoke about the virus. The day after the funeral of government officials who had died of COVID-19, he asked the media to devote a moment of silence to the danger of the virus. This change of heart came as a relief in Burundian refugee camps in Tanzania, where refugee representatives such as Léopold Sharangabo had been asking for help to protect themselves and their communities. A year has passed since then, and Tanzania and Burundi remain in denial of the global pandemic. At a time when the WHO is set to begin vaccination efforts on the continent, Tanzania and Burundi are not listed among the 47 African countries in partnership with the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization in the COVAX program dedicated to global and equitable access to vaccines against COVID-19.