Burundi has ordered the country’s top World Health Organization (WHO) representative and three other experts coordinating the coronavirus response to leave the country.
The expelled officials include the WHO’s representative Dr Walter Kazadi Mulombo, the country’s coronavirus coordinator Dr Jean Pierre Mulunda Nkata, communicable diseases head Dr Ruhana Mirindi Bisimwa, and a laboratory expert in the testing for COVID-19, Professor Daniel Tarzy.
In a letter dated May 12 and addressed to WHO’s Africa headquarters, the foreign ministry said the four officials “are declared persona non grata and as such, must leave the territory of Burundi” by Friday.
“They are expelled and the health minister has totally excluded WHO, accusing it of unacceptable interference in its management of the coronavirus.”
The letter does not provide a reason for the decision. Diplomatic and administrative sources told AFP that the foreign ministry aborted a similar attempt to expel the same four officials a month ago.
Burundi expels W.H.O officials giving them a 72 hour deadline to leave the country. The WHO’s Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, said that the organization “remain[s] very willing to…support their [Burundi’s] response to COVID-19.”
John Nkengasong, the head of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement that he found the decision to hold elections in a time of the COVID-19 crisis irresponsible.
“We have to collectively deny the virus any space to transmit,” he said.
Opposition candidate Léonce Ngendakumana said the expulsion is “regrettable” and called upon the government to heed recommended health and safety precautions.
“The country alone won’t be able to contain the pandemic,” Ngendakmana said.
Burundi has only 27 reported cases of COVID-19, but health officials suspect cases are on the rise due to the lack of testing and lockdown measures, the CDC said.
Critics accuse the government of downplaying the virus in order to temper rising civil unrest, fearing a repeat of the violence that occurred after the 2015 election of current president Pierre Nkurunziza.
In 2019, Burundi expelled United Nations officials who investigated the violence after the 2015 vote. The country also left the International Criminal Court after facing charges of state-sponsored crime.