COVID-19 vs Elections – a tough choice in Burundi

Elections are taking place in Burundi and adding to an already tense situation is division and uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic and how the government is handling it. The network of bloggers who power RNW Media’s Yaga Burundi platform have been creating a wide range of content to inform their young audience about both the political importance of the election and the consequences of the pandemic. In his blog, Jeanne Rugira sets out the divisions he sees among his peers.

The COVID-19 crisis has divided Burundi in the run-up to the elections on May 20th. Some say the truth about the real situation is being concealed. Others say it’s wrong to give the impression of a country in crisis by exaggerating a situation which is actually under control. Who’s right and who’s wrong?

Prevailing mindsets
It’s a Tuesday evening, and sitting at a bar in Gitega, we’re sharing a drink with friends and acquaintances. Topics of discussion range from the serious, such as a Corona lock-down (or rather, the lack of it in Burundi’s case) to increasingly risqué jokes.

Suddenly, the guy next to me, riveted to his Twitter feed, exclaims: “Hey guys, the representative of WHO, as well as three other experts, have just been declared persona non grata in Burundi.” This starts a debate on the relationship between COVID-19 and the May 20 elections. The bar erupts with others joining in the discussion and three blocks form, illustrating the prevailing mindsets.

The pessimists
Some say that if we look at what’s happening in other countries, we can see that holding the elections means we’re dicing with a potentially serious problem that could rapidly cause widespread damage.

NK is highly political engaged, but despite this he has not set foot near any of his party’s rallies. He explains:

“The number of people testing positive for COVID-19 does not allow me to go and expose myself at these rallies where there is no respect for social distancing. Look at Algeria where big gatherings at a wedding and a funeral led to the city of Blida becoming the first center of contagion.”

It’s the same for SA from Bujumbura:

“The low rate of people collecting their voting cards in Bujumbura can be explained by fear of the epidemic and fear that going to vote could lead to spikes in contagion. People don’t want to expose themselves by making the same mistakes that were made in Italy where the epidemic exploded after a football match.”

Despite the way hygiene precautions are being ignored during the electoral campaign, some people are reassured by the fact that the number of cases in Burundi is so low. Could it be the work of God (as some people claim)? Or is it because there’s insufficient capacity to test many people? Or maybe it’s because Burundians are especially resistant to the virus?

You shouldn’t worry because God is in control, believes NA:

“Why do you and the WHO give the impression of a Burundi in crisis by exaggerating a rather controlled situation?” With only 42 cases of COVID-19 including 20 people recovering, why keep banging on with your Coronavirus noises. Maybe those people were a sacrifice? God is in control and I will vote with peace in my heart.”

His friend PC adds:

“Even if the risk of contamination is there, I will vote because not going to vote can have serious consequence, even worse than those predicted with COVID-19, especially in rural areas where we are labeled umuvyonzi (troublemakers) or igipinga (recalcitrant).”

This group, including myself, argue that in a crisis situation it is better to overestimate the problem rather than underestimate it. This has not been the case with the electoral campaign, nor, I expect, will it be on election day. Reality and common sense should take precedence over political calculation. Yes, even while the politicians are trying to be reassuring, the chain of transmission is already happening. Just take a look at the press releases from the Ministry of Health.

Politics is for people
No one can predict how this pandemic will play out in Burundi, and whatever the arguments and bluster of politicians, there are almost twelve million Burundians who need to be protected. Politics did not exist before human beings, and human beings are unlikely to disappear if politics ever does. Politics is only politics if it serves the well-being of people, not vice versa.

Before Burundians go to the polls, the authorities should intensify awareness of protective measures and so should the various political parties. We must not trade an institutional crisis for a health crisis.

You can read the original French language blog by Jeanne Rugira here.

You’ll find more coverage of the COVID-19 crisis and how it is affecting Burundi and the elections in Yaga’s special dossier.