Nairobi — Burundian authorities risk putting people in grave danger without the free flow of fact-based information on the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking about the country's exposure to the virus, President Pierre Nkurunziza's spokesperson recently said "Burundi is an exception because it is a country that has put God first." Such national exceptionalism claims should not be used to prevent people from raising concerns about suspected cases and the potential spread of the virus.
Although police and local officials have quarantined Burundians and foreigners traveling into the country by air or overland in hotels, schools, and other buildings, Burundian authorities have failed to ensure adequate food, health care, hygiene, and sanitation in some locations. Some humanitarian organizations have been blocked from reaching and providing assistance to people in quarantine.
"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 Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Burundian authorities should be transparent and work with international partners to enable the prompt and unrestricted delivery of aid and protect those most vulnerable, should the virus spread."
Although Burundi has no confirmed cases, cases have been reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania. The government's steps in response to the pandemic included for 7 days, renewed until April 4, 2020, a 14-day for passengers arriving from affected countries, and a call on security forces to help enforce hygiene and sanitation measures in public places.
On March 27, a hospital in Bujumbura, the country's economic capital, , who later reportedly tested negative. Several sources in the medical and humanitarian field have expressed concerns to Human Rights Watch that the authorities are not conducting enough tests to understand the extent to which the disease may be spreading.
Health guidelines have been circulated through local and national radio stations and media, advising people to wash their hands regularly and avoid contact, such as shaking hands. However, government repression of people attempting to expose abuse or contradict the official narrative is likely to pose a problem in the response to the pandemic, especially against a backdrop of an increasing crackdown on perceived government opponents. In 2019, the authorities failed to declare a malaria epidemic despite recording 8.5 million cases - out of a population of over 11.5 million - and more than 3,000 deaths, which undermined the response to the disease.
A government statement dated March 25, 2020 reiterated that "only the grace of God has protected Burundi" from COVID-19, and threatened those who take preventive measures ahead of the government. On March 20, a said those who do not respect the measures taken will be sanctioned and considered to be trying to "annihilate" the government's efforts to respond to the pandemic. The president's spokesperson also said campaigning for the next general elections, scheduled to begin in May, would not be affected by the virus.
Burundian security forces and members of the ruling party's youth league have consistently been implicated in gross human rights abuses, including killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, extortion, illegal detention, and use of excessive force, particularly against those perceived to oppose the government. The authorities need to ensure that security forces do not commit abuses when enforcing new measures to address the pandemic, Human Rights Watch said.
On March 26, an official from the World Health Organization based in Bujumbura told Human Rights Watch that the global health body only knew of one quarantine site in the country, a hotel in Bujumbura that held around 40 people.
However, local media reports and information received by Human Rights Watch suggest that hundreds of people are currently being held in at least 11 sites across the country, including schools, hotels, and government buildings. The aid and medical sources said that most sites lack the necessary hygiene and sanitation infrastructure, are severely overcrowded, and raise the risk of the virus spreading unchecked.
A young man in quarantine at a hotel in Kobero, in Muyinga province near the Tanzanian border, where over 100 people were confined, said on March 26: "I share a room with six others, so we split the fee of 10,000 Burundian Francs (approximately US$5) a day. There are people sleeping outside, but they have been told they will also have to pay." He later told Human Rights Watch that on March 29, a Health Ministry representative told people at the hotel that those who fail to pay risk being transferred to jail.
When imposing quarantines, governments need to ensure they respect their obligation to guarantee access to adequate food, water, and health care to everyone within their territory, without discrimination, Human Rights Watch said.
A woman who was quarantined for one night on March 15 at the Ngozi paramedical school in the north told Human Rights Watch that people were forced to sleep on the floor or on school benches: "We didn't have anything to eat or drink, and the toilets were filthy. There were around 20 policemen guarding the school and when we tried to convince them to let us out to buy food, they said they had authorization to shoot us if we tried to leave." She also said that the police prevented the Burundian Red Cross from accessing the school to distribute food and tea for several hours.
In some cases, quarantined people were released after a few hours or days. A well-informed humanitarian source said over a hundred people, including children who had fallen ill, were released last week from a site in Giteranyi, Muyinga province. They had been held without food or water in appalling sanitary conditions for several days. Several humanitarian organizations have been blocked from providing assistance at quarantine sites.
Since 2015, when Nkurunziza's decision to run for a controversial third term plunged the country into a prolonged human rights crisis, any space for rights groups and independent journalists to operate freely in Burundi has gradually vanished. Prosecutions, threats, and intimidation have forced many activists and journalists to stop working on sensitive political or human rights issues, or to leave the country.
Officials of several international humanitarian organizations and local nongovernmental groups have recently raised concerns in interviews with Human Rights Watch over the government's desire to control the narrative on the food security and health crises in Burundi, preventing them from responding adequately.
Undermining humanitarian operations and limiting effective communication about COVID-19 will only exacerbate the challenge of ensuring health guidelines are followed in a country where only half the population can access basic sanitation services and more than 70 percent of people live below the poverty line, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch released a report on March 19, 2020 outlining the human rights dimensions of COVID-19. The authorities should ensure that their response to COVID-19 includes prevention and treatment measures, with particular attention to measures reducing overcrowding in detention centers and camps, improving sanitation and access to health care, and ensuring the use of time-bound quarantines and isolation only if strictly necessary.
"The Burundian government needs to protect people's health and welfare, and any interventions should be in line with international human rights standards," Mudge said. "It's critically important for the authorities to ensure unfettered access to humanitarian organizations in this time of crisis."