Nairobi – Burundi has ordered the expulsion of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) expert team backing the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, just days before a presidential election.
The foreign ministry, in a letter to WHO Africa headquarters and seen by AFP on Wednesday, said the UN agency’s representative in Burundi and his three colleagues “are declared persona non grata and as such, must leave the territory of Burundi” by Friday.
The directive, dated May 12, expels WHO’s top official in Burundi, Dr Walter Kazadi Mulombo; the country’s coronavirus coordinator, Dr Jean Pierre Mulunda Nkata; communicable diseases head Dr Ruhana Mirindi Bisimwa; and a laboratory expert in the testing for COVID-19, Professor Daniel Tarzy.
“It is the whole WHO team responsible for supporting Burundi in its response against COVID-19,” a Burundian official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They are expelled and the health minister has totally excluded WHO, accusing it of unacceptable interference in its management of the coronavirus.”
The letter does not provide a reason for the decision. Diplomatic and administrative sources told AFP the foreign ministry aborted a similar attempt to expel the same four officials a month ago.
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention described the move as “unfortunate” at a time when greater cooperation was needed to tackle the virus on the continent.
“We are in dire need of technical expertise as a continent, which has a very weak health system and fragile infrastraucture, where we don’t have the luxury of kicking out WHO,” director John Nkengasong told reporters Thursday.
– Looming election –
The announcement comes just days before Burundians go to the polls on May 20 to choose a new president, parliamentarians and local officials.
The landlocked country of some 11 million has officially recorded 27 cases and one death from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
But it has taken few precautions against the disease and testing is low, fuelling concern that the true extent of the outbreak is not known.
Rights groups say the government is pressing ahead with the vote no matter the cost, and accuses the ruling party and its youth wing of crushing dissent and threatening those taking their own measures against coronavirus.
Huge political rallies have been held across the country, drawing tens of thousands of supporters together in mass gatherings that have been banned in other parts of Africa and around the word.
Nkengasong warned such congregations were ripe for spreading coronavirus far and wide.
“We’ve seen that in countries where they’ve gone ahead and conducted elections, or where they’ve enabled people to come together in a political rally, the cases have increased,” he said.
“There’s absolutely no doubt about that.”
Officials in Burundi have cited divine protection for the country’s ostensibly low infection rate and urged citizens to go about their daily lives without fear.
“Do not be afraid. God loves Burundi and if there are people who have tested positive, it is so that God may manifest his power in Burundi,” said General Evariste Ndayishimiye, the presidential candidate for the ruling CNDD-FDD party.
Government spokesman Prosper Ntahorwamiye said Burundi “thanks all-powerful God” for sparing the country from the pandemic.