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A rally on the first day of the ruling party’s campaign in Bugendana, Burundi, on April 27, 2020. © 2020 Private

While most of the world tries to slow the spread and limit the death toll of Covid-19, Burundi is expelling health experts. This week, the government, which refuses to acknowledge the threat the virus presents, resorted to familiar tactics and declared the country representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) and three of its experts persona non grata without giving any reason.

With less than a week before Burundians go to the polls to elect their next president and local and parliamentary representatives, tensions are rising. In recent weeks, medical and humanitarian sources have expressed concern to Human Rights Watch that the authorities are doing little to limit the spread of the virus. Although Burundi has only confirmed 27 cases, doctors and nurses have told the media that the government is downplaying the crisis and suppressing the real death toll.

As the May 20 elections approach, authorities have resorted to claims of national exceptionalism and threatening statements to minimize the threat of the virus. The government has also informed the East African Community that the election observation team would be subjected to a 14-day mandatory quarantine if it travelled to Burundi. Although restrictions on movement to address the health crisis are warranted when necessary and proportionate, to have fair elections, Burundi should ensure they are open to independent monitoring and accountability for crimes and abuses. Burundi’s elections risk effectively taking place behind closed doors, which may be just what authorities want. 

Since a political crisis broke out in Burundi in 2015, authorities have stopped at nothing to eliminate space for dissenting voices. Burundi refuses to cooperate with international and regional human rights mechanisms and shut down the country’s United Nations Human Rights Office in early 2019. A UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Burundi has never been given access to the country, despite repeated requests. Now WHO officials have been added to the list of officials barred from the country.

Today, the Commission of Inquiry raised concerns about political tensions ramping up, acts of violence, and arrests of opposition members and candidates since the start of the campaigns. A perfect storm is brewing in Burundi, but after years of repression, few are left to bear witness and sound the alarm.

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