The government of Burundi, headed by President Pierre Nkurunziza, has ordered the country’s top World Health Organization (WHO) representative and three other experts coordinating the Coronavirus response to leave the country amidst allegations of sabotage.
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.
“It is the whole WHO team responsible for supporting Burundi in its response against COVID-19,” a Burundian official told the media, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They are expelled and the health minister has totally excluded WHO, accusing it of unacceptable interference in its management of the Coronavirus.”
However, the letter does not provide any 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,” Africa CDC director John Nkengasong told reporters on Thursday.
The announcement comes just days before Burundians go to the polls on May 20 to choose a new president, parliamentarians and local officials.
The landlocked country of some 11 million has officially recorded 27 cases and one death from Coronavirus.
But it has taken few precautions against the disease and testing is low, fueling concern that the true extent of the outbreak is not known.