Burundi has expelled four officials from the World Health Organization (WHO), declaring them persona non grata and ordering them to leave the country by Friday, a leaked memo from the country’s foreign ministry reveals.
The decision comes days before the May 20 presidential elections and amid a global coronavirus pandemic.
Bernard Ntahiraja, the foreign affairs assistant minister, did not provide an explanation for the expulsion.
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.
The expelled officials include WHO country head Walter Kazadi Mulombo, field epidemiologist Jean Pierre Mulunda Nkata, health sector coordinator Ruhana Mirindi Bisimwa, and Daniel Tarzy.
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.