Human Rights Watch accuses Burundi of hiding COVID-19 data, silencing health workers and endangering prisoners

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday accused Burundi of concealing COVID-19 data, silencing health workers and endangering prisoners. Former president Pierre Nkurunziza died on June 8, officially of a cardiac arrest, but it was widely believed he died from COVID-19. Nkurunziza, his wife, and the health minister had been hospitalized in recent weeks, although no official reason was given.

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The rights group said the government’s response was fueling fear and rumors about the spread of the disease and called on Burundi’s new leadership to ensure people have access to “accurate, scientific, and evidence-based information essential to protecting their health.”

“The authorities’ reckless approach to the pandemic is adding further uncertainty and fear to an already politically charged atmosphere when accurate statistics and transparency are needed to save lives,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Burundi’s new president should make responding to Covid-19 a priority and ramp up testing to know the true extent of the coronavirus outbreak in the country.”

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According to Mudge, healthcare workers’ fear of retaliation and inability to transparently report on the situation is aggravating the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic.

“To avoid preventable deaths from this pandemic, Burundi’s regional and international partners should press the government to ensure that people have access to accurate, evidence-based information essential to protecting their health. Until now, Burundi’s leaders have done everything but that.”

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After Nkurunziza passed away, a constitutional court declared the victory of his party’s candidate, Évariste Ndayishimiye, in the May presidential elections. During his swearing-in ceremony on June 18, Ndayishimiye thanked God for the low reported coronavirus transmission and mortality rates, and urged Burundians to take all possible measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

However, the rights group said since March, high-level government officials, including Nkurunziza and Ndayishimiye, had downplayed the threat of the virus.

For instance, during a speech on April 5, Ndayishimiye said: “Some are locked up at home, but God has accepted that we gather…. God loves Burundi… and if some have contracted the coronavirus, it’s so that divine action can transpire.” During the election campaign, which started on April 27, both Nkurunziza and Ndayishimiye participated in numerous rallies for thousands of people without adequate social distancing measures. The opposition also organized large gatherings during the campaign.

Human Rights Watch said it interviewed several healthcare workers and experts in recent weeks about the situation, and all those interviewed requested anonymity and that the name of their hospital be withheld, citing fear of retaliation by the Health Ministry or security services against themselves or their colleagues. Several said they felt their lives were at risk for speaking out about the situation.

“Burundi has confirmed 144 cases and 1 death. However, several medical workers and experts interviewed raised concerns about an increase in cases with Covid-19 symptoms and alleged that the government-managed National Institute for Public Health (Institut national de santé publique, INSP) refuses to carry out tests or adequately report on the pandemic,” Human Rights Watch said, adding that “on May 12, 2020, the government declared persona non grata the World Health Organization’s country director, two senior staff members, and a consultant supporting the public health response to the virus.”

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