Photograph — Reuters

Despite a surge in the number of coronavirus cases across Africa, Burundi has ordered the country’s top World Health Organization (WHO) representative alongside three experts coordinating the disease response to leave the country.

The government confirmed on Thursday that a letter dated May 12 from the foreign ministry was sent to WHO country head Walter Kazadi Mulombo; communicable disease head Jean Pierre Mulunda Nkata; Ruhana Mirindi Bisimwa, and a laboratory expert in the testing for COVID-19, Daniel Tarzy. The officials were declared persona non grata and as such, must leave the territory of Burundi.

“It is the whole WHO team responsible for supporting Burundi in its response against COVID-19. They are expelled and the health minister has totally excluded WHO, accusing it of unacceptable interference in its management of the coronavirus,” a Burundian official told AFP news agency.

The letter does not contain the reason why the government is asking the officials to leave the country. But diplomatic and administrative sources told AFP the foreign ministry aborted a similar attempt to expel the same four officials a month ago.

Just some days to the country’s electoral polls, President Pierre Nkurunziza has insisted the election will hold despite health risks from the coronavirus pandemic. Due to this decision, the head of regional Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), John Nkengasong, called the expulsions “unfortunate” and criticized the decision to hold elections during a health crisis.

Highlighting the risk involved, the CDC head said it will be extremely difficult for the country to overcome the virus. For instance, cases have increased in countries that have held elections amid the pandemic.

During Burundi’s electoral campaigns, it was discovered that the lockdown and social distancing policies aimed at halting the spread of the disease was not observed. Some Burundians say privately they believe COVID-19 infections are higher than officially stated but they say they fear to say so publicly because they could be targeted and punished. 

While there hasn’t as been a formal reaction from the WHO, an official said the people affected appeared to be “victims of bad management” of the COVID-19 disease by Burundi.

The International Crisis Group has said the Burundi government is working in denial, questioning the number of coronavirus cases being reported in the country. So far, it has reported 27 cases including one death. 

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi said in a statement that it deeply regretted the recent decision by the government to declare persona non grata the country representative of WHO and three of its experts.

The investigators, tasked by the United Nations Human Rights Council with probing alleged violations and abuses in the country since 2015, also raised concerns about the authorities’ decision not to adhere to the WHO recommendations on physical distancing in other to prevent the spread of the coronavirus during the electoral campaign.

By Ahmed Iyanda.

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