Burundi expels WHO coronavirus team days before election

Burundi has ordered the expulsion of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) expert team coordinating the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, just days before the country’s elections.

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.

"The UN agency’s representative in Burundi and his three colleagues are declared persona non grata and as such, must leave the territory of Burundi by Friday, " a letter from the foreign ministry to WHO said. 

WHO Africa director, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said: “Late yesterday afternoon I was made aware through a note verbale about this decision of the government of Burundi which has asked our WHO representative and three other persons, one of whom is a consultant … to leave the country immediately."

“We are in communication with the government of Burundi to clarify and understand the reasoning behind this decision they have taken. 

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.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has described the move as "unfortunate" at a time when greater cooperation was needed to tackle the virus on the continent.

“We are in dire need of technical expertise as a continent, which has a very weak health system and fragile infrastructure, where we don’t have the luxury of kicking out WHO,” its director, John Nkengasong, said.

The announcement comes days before Burundians go to the polls on 20 May to choose a new president, parliamentarians and local officials.

The country has officially recorded 27 cases and one death from the coronavirus. However, has not taken stringent measures or precautions against the disease and the rate of testing is low. This has fuelled concern that the true extent of the outbreak is not known.

Doctors in the country have also expressed their concern that people who have exhibited symptoms of the virus have either died or have not been tested, it has been reported.

Meanwhile, human rights groups say the government is determined to go ahead with the vote no matter the cost, and accuses the ruling party and its youth wing of "crushing dissent and threatening those taking their own measures against coronavirus".

Huge political rallies have been held across the country, drawing tens of thousands of supporters together in mass gatherings that have been banned in other parts of Africa and globally.