Humanitarian organisations have been blocked from providing assistance to hundreds of people kept at “unsanitary” coronavirus quarantine sites in Burundi, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
The sites were set up for Burundians and foreign travellers arriving in the country by air and land but are “overcrowded” and lack adequate supplies of food, water, and hygiene facilities, the rights groups said.
“The Burundian government needs to protect people’s health and welfare, and any interventions should be in line with international human rights standards,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at HRW.
The small East African country reported its first two cases of COVID-19 – both Burundian men who had recently returned from abroad – this week.
The president’s spokesperson, Jean-Claude Karerwa, had earlier described Burundi as an “exception among other nations” and “protected” by God when asked about the virus.
Last year, authorities refused to declare a malaria outbreak an epidemic despite recording 8.5 million cases in a country of just 11 million people.
“Failing to communicate fact-based information on how severe, contagious, and challenging this virus is, under Burundi’s usual denial and deflection approach to crisis management ignores painful lessons learned elsewhere about the outbreak,” said Mudge.
Burundi has been wracked by political violence since 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a disputed third term in office. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to neighbouring countries.
Karerwa said presidential elections scheduled for next month will go ahead despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Nkurunziza is not seeking re-election but the UN said government security forces and the ruling party’s notorious youth wing – the Imbonerakure – are creating “a climate of fear and intimidation” ahead of the polls.
In a report published in January, the Burundi Human Rights Initiative alleged that opposition supporters had been beaten to death by Imbonerakure members and buried in secret cemeteries.
– Philip Kleinfeld