EDITORIAL: Burundi should reconsider its upcoming poll

Saturday May 02 2020

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza and Evariste Ndayishimiye presidential candidate of the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), with his wife Angeline Ndayubaha attend a campaign rally at the Bugendana Stadium in Gitega Province, Burundi on April 27, 2020. PHOTO | REUTERS

By The EastAfrican

The trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa by and large continues to reflect a rising case burden, even factoring in isolated pockets of remission.

The number of confirmed cases on the continent had risen from 450 on March 17, when aggregate data on the pandemic’s course began to get captured, to 37,391 on April 30.

Amid a debate over what approach Africa should take to stop the pandemic, many countries have played safe by employing strict social distancing and hygiene measures that appeared to work elsewhere, especially in China.

A few exceptions have bought into the argument that with its relatively very young populations, lockdowns would have limited benefits in Africa from a public health standpoint, yet exact a heavy economic toll.

With only about 11 confirmed cases so far, Burundi appears to be sold on that viewpoint. Bujumbura has imposed only minimal restrictions to movement, which appear to prevent importation of cases or rapid community transmission.

With an election around the corner, the country has launched into full campaign mode.


As mass events that are typically preceded by a lot of movement between geographical locations and close physical contact between people; electoral campaigns represent a lot of unknowns in the context of the fight against Covid-19.

Matters are compounded further by the fact that nobody, at this point, knows why the pandemic’s spread has been varied, with low resource countries such as South Sudan, Burundi and Uganda reporting quite low numbers.

Optimists interpret that trend would seem to validate the idea of a lower risk in those specific countries.

On the flipside however, one cannot ignore the near exponential growth in the case load in Tanzania and Kenya in recent times. In reality, the varied outcomes across the region demonstrate what is working and what may need adjustment.

The one constant from what is happening in the region and what has happened elsewhere, is that Covid-19 is deadly. Without variations to approach, attempting an election in the present circumstances is similar to a high-wire act. And it could be all it will take to alter the pandemic from its largely benign course in Burundi.

Although some countries, notably South Korea have pulled off an election in the midst of the pandemic, it is worth noting that the contenders did not hold mass rallies. On the other hand, Bujumbura appears to have thrown all caution to the wind, opening up the field in traditional fashion.

Elections are important but they should not be taken as a matter of life and death. If they cannot wait, are they worth the risk of unmitigated spread that could overwhelm already shaky national health infrastructure? And if they must be held, are open campaigns the only way of conducting an election?

Bujumbura should carefully weigh the inherent risks in proceeding with its election campaigns. It should choose to err on the side of caution. Despite the obviously divergent interests between politics and science, Burundi should heed health experts’ advice.