After COVID-19 spread across Europe, many African countries took measures to stop its spread. Of those countries that BWAUK work in, Rwanda, with 339 cases, was the first country to impose a lock-down. Kenya, with 1,348 cases, Sierra Leone, with 754 cases and Zimbabwe, with 56 cases have also all enforced lock-downs.

So why are the numbers so low in Burundi?

Burundi, where BWAUK supports the Centre d’Aide et de Protection de l’Enfant (CAPE), and its Murakaza school in Bujumbura, is one of the few African countries where COVID-19 cases are still in double figures and didn’t impose a total lock-down. The government currently (28 May) reports just 42 cases. However, this was possibly part of its campaign to reassure the population that it is “business as usual”, in order for national elections to go ahead on 20th May. On 15th May the then-President Pierre Nkurunziza expelled the WHO team for spreading false information about the spread of COVID-19 in Burundi.

The government also singled out sections of the media that had suggested that the country was ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic, given the lack of hospital beds and equipment, PPE and testing facilities, describing them as “birds which foretell doom”. Medical staff however, say that based on the number of people they are treating, the real figure of cases could be 10 times higher.

Government desperate to go ahead with elections to consolidate power

While the country put some measures in place, such as hand-washing, in May the President issued communications announcing that all was well, so there was no reason to ban large gatherings or enforce social distancing. He reiterated that elections could still take place. A government spokesperson even announced that: “Burundi is an exception to other countries, as it puts God first, and he will protect us. [...] We have made a special pact with him.”

There is increasing uncertainty among the population of Burundi. Our CEO, Sylvia Costantini, describes the situation as follows:

For now the schools are remaining open. So CAPE continues to provide education and food to the children. We've heard reports of people who were wearing masks being heckled on the street. Initial reports of a few cases and one death and that doesn't seem to have changed much since April, but it's hard to know the real numbers.

Government stamping out dissent

President Nkurunziza originally came to power in 2005, but unrest began in 2015, after he sought a third term in office. This led to riots, which were followed by a government clamp down with over 1,200 people killed, and 400,000 displaced. This atmosphere of fear is something which children at Murakaza School have often mentioned.

Drawing from a child in Burundi showing the violence post-election in 2015
A drawing by a child depicts violence and police searching homes during the 2015 post-election unrest.

In February 2018, the government banned the BBC and Voice of America, and any journalists working for them. This January, after a kangaroo court trial, it sentenced four journalists to 30 months in prison for “an attempt to violate state security” after they reported on rebel skirmishes.

In 2018, Nkuruziza won a referendum which would have allowed him to remain in power until 2034. However, just before this year’s elections President Nkurunziza declared that he would not seek another term, and nominated Evariste Ndayishimiye, a former army general who worked in the president’s office and served as cabinet minister as his successor.

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by Daphne Davies, Volunteer Journalist