The Coronavirus Outbreak

By Abdi Latif Dahir

The campaign has been marred by violence against the political opposition and a disregard of measures to protect the public from the coronavirus.

Lining up in Giheta, Burundi, on Wednesday. More than five million Burundians are expected to vote at about 1,500 polling stations.
Lining up in Giheta, Burundi, on Wednesday. More than five million Burundians are expected to vote at about 1,500 polling stations.Credit...Berthier Mugiraneza/Associated Press

NAIROBI, Kenya — Standing shoulder to shoulder without masks or gloves, throngs of voters in Burundi waited in long lines on Wednesday to mark their ballots to replace the country’s long-reigning, autocratic president.

President Pierre Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader, has ruled the country with impunity for the last 15 years, evading international efforts to call him to account for human rights abuses. More recently, he has downplayed the threat posed by the coronavirus.

The competitive race to elect his successor — the front-runners are a member of the president’s party and a longtime critic — has been marked by arrests and the killings of political opponents.

Burundi, a small, landlocked nation in Central Africa and one of the world’s poorest countries, has suffered through decades of violence and instability since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962.

It now finds itself caught in the grip of a political system focused more on preserving power than on protecting the public’s health, as the campaign season has shown. Last week, the government expelled four representatives of the World Health Organization who were in the country to help coordinate Burundi’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The lives of Burundian people are being sacrificed by their government, risking an imminent explosion of the pandemic in the coming days,” said Anschaire Nikoyagize, the head of Ligue Iteka, a Burundian human rights organization, who lives in exile.

On Wednesday, Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter were cut off — a measure that digital rights groups had expressed concern about before the election. Human rights groups said they had received reports of harassment of opposition members and incidents of voter fraud, but with social media blocked, they were unable to confirm them.

Willy Nyamitwe, a senior adviser to President Nkurunziza, said on Twitter that contrary to “rumors,” the internet was still working in Burundi. He did not specifically address whether the government had restricted access to social media.

More than five million Burundians were expected to vote at about 1,500 polling stations to choose not just a new president, but also lawmakers and local officials.

ImagePresident Pierre Nkurunziza, right, with the presidential candidate Evariste Ndayishimiye, center, and his wife, Angelique Ndayubaha, at a campaign rally in Bujumbura, Burundi, on Saturday.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, right, with the presidential candidate Evariste Ndayishimiye, center, and his wife, Angelique Ndayubaha, at a campaign rally in Bujumbura, Burundi, on Saturday.Credit...Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

There are seven candidates running for president, but the two top contenders are Evariste Ndayishimiye, the secretary general of the ruling party, who is endorsed by the current president, and Agathon Rwasa, an ex-rebel leader and longtime opposition figure.

Experts say that this election could be the first competitive vote since a civil war that began in 1993 and ended in 2005. The official election results are expected to be released on June 4.

But the campaign has been marred by violence. Between January and March, Ligue Iteka, the local human rights group, documented 67 killings, in addition to 14 extrajudicial executions, 15 cases of gender-based violence, 23 cases of torture, 204 arbitrary arrests and six abductions. Journalists have also been threatened and arrested, according to Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The violence reflects the reign of Mr. Nkurunziza, who came to power in 2005 and whose authoritarian rule has been shaped by human rights violations and mass displacement.

The elections were the first since 2015, when Mr. Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term led to widespread protests. After a thwarted coup attempt, unrest across the country triggered a crackdown by security forces, which killed hundreds and caused more than 400,000 people to flee to neighboring countries.

A United Nations inquiry into the crisis documented extrajudicial killings, torture and rape committed by intelligence officers, the police and the youth league of the ruling party, known as the Imbonerakure. After the U.N. urged the International Criminal Court to begin a prosecution, Burundi withdrew its membership from the court altogether in 2017.

Supporters of the ruling party gathered for the start of the election campaign in Bugendana, Burundi, in late April.Credit...Berthier Mugiraneza/Associated Press

Amid allegations of political repression, voters in 2018 overwhelmingly passed a referendum that extended presidential terms from five to seven years and gave more powers to the president. But last year, Mr. Nkurunziza, 55, surprised his country by announcing that he would not run for another term.

The ruling party in January picked as its candidate Mr. Ndayishimiye, a former army general who worked in the president’s office and served as cabinet minister for interior and security. Mr. Ndayishimiye says he wants to reduce poverty, boost infrastructure projects and improve agriculture, considered the backbone of the economy.

Presenting himself as the change candidate, he has railed at the injustices committed by the ruling party and criticized the lavish send-off conferred on Mr. Nkurunziza — including a $500,000 payment and the title of “Supreme Guide of Patriotism.”

“Life is becoming more and more unbearable,” Mr. Rwasa recently told a packed stadium in Ngozi Province in the country’s north. “The time for change has come.”

The general election faces the prospect of limited external scrutiny, experts say, leaving open the possibility of manipulation of the results. After downplaying the threat of the coronavirus, the government in early May said it would quarantine election observers from the East African Community for 14 days upon arrival to ensure they didn’t have Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. So the observers stayed home.

Agathon Rwasa, presidential candidate of the main opposition party, addressing supporters in Gitega, Burundi, on Sunday.Credit...Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Domitile Mugisha, a 28-year-old teacher in the port city of Bujumbura, said of the election, “It is a process that has never been transparent; therefore, its results are always criticized.”

In recent years, the authorities have tried to avoid international scrutiny by blocking independent monitors, including by closing the U.N. Human Rights Office in Burundi last year. The country is also self-financing its polls after donors, including the European Union, cut off funding after the 2015 political crisis.

  • Updated May 12, 2020

    • There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.

    • Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

    • The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.

    • Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.

Given all these factors, there are concerns that the elections “will effectively take place behind closed doors,” said Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

The risk of Covid-19 adds a critical dimension to the process of holding this election. From the outbreak’s onset, the authorities cited divine protection for keeping the country open and for holding large campaign rallies.

And even after reporting 42 positive cases and one death, officials have continued to insist that the virus would not affect the country as severely as it has others worldwide.

“Aren’t you crowded here together? Do you have any problem with that?” Mr. Nkurunziza asked a gathering in Ngozi in early May. “Let us clap our hands for our God because he is with us.”

Burundians washed their hands as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in Gatumba, Burundi, on Monday.Credit...Onesphore Nibigira/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At polling stations, voters were asked to wash their hands while poll workers donned masks and gloves. But temperatures were not checked because there was not enough money to buy equipment, said Jean Bosco Girukwishaka, a health ministry spokesman.

David Kiwuwa, director of the Center for Advanced International Studies at the University of Nottingham’s campus in Ningbo, China, said that while the likelihood of large-scale ethnic violence remained low, “the possibility of increased postelection violence by challengers to the status quo is highly likely, as long as the regime continues to harass opponents and squeeze challengers out of the political space.”

Voters, in interviews, pleaded with the parties to leave behind violence and come up with solutions that would improve their lives.

André Nahimana, 29, an activist for tax justice, said that “no candidate was able to objectively show how he would mobilize reliable resources to finance his program without bleeding an ordinary citizen who is becoming poorer.”

“Everyone promises wonders,” said Ernest Ndikumana, 36, a shopkeeper in the capital, Gitega. “But attaining that is impossible.”