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Burundi’s Authoritarian President Possibly First Head of State to Die of COVID-19

On June 9th, President Pierre Nkurunziza died from what Burundi’s government claims to have been a sudden heart attack. However, this news came only days after reports surfaced that he and his wife might have contracted the coronavirus.

In short: Nkurunziza’s 15 years of post-civil war rule over the small landlocked African country was unfortunately defined by democratic backsliding. His death comes as Burundi downplayed COVID-19, not enacting any policy to curb the spread of infection and holding an election in May of 2020.

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Questions over death: The President’s death came very suddenly. He was admitted to hospital on Saturday night before “his health suddenly deteriorated and he had a heart attack on Monday” according to the government statement.

  • Speculation that the President had been dealing with a COVID-19 infection has gained traction following unconfirmed reports that his wife, currently in a Nairobi, Kenya hospital, had contracted the virus.

Downplaying COVID-19: Burundi’s government consistently ignored the risks posed by the coronavirus, likely leading to an existing outbreak which is far more serious than official numbers suggest.

  • Despite rising COVID-19 cases, Burundi held an election on May 2020 to elect a successor to Nkurunziza who had made the surprise decision to step down and into a new role of “Supreme Guide to Patriotism” following 15 years in power.
  • A week before, the Burundi government had expelled WHO officials coordinating the coronavirus response accusing them of unacceptable interference.
  • Burundi has refused to implement restrictions to stem virus infections, allowing sporting events and mass political rallies to go ahead.

Democratic backsliding: Burundi under Nkurunziza had gained a reputation for suppressing dissent. This was highlighted by his 2015 decision to run for a third term which his rivals claimed violated the peace deal that ended the civil war.

  • A failed coup following the 2015 election led to a violent response from state-controlled security forces killing hundreds and displacing hundreds of thousands.
  • Journalists and human rights workers are often targeted. Recently, four local news workers were sentenced to prison for investigating reports of unrest.
  • An exiled Burundian human rights organization documented 67 killings as well as numerous cases of torture and arbitrary arrests leading to the 2020 election.

A World First: If Nkurunziza’s death is confirmed to have been as a result of COVID-19, he will have become the first head of state to die from the virus. This comes at a time when other African nations are struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks.

  • Tanzania, also infamous for not implementing COVID-19 restrictions, had its opposition Members of Parliament boycott parliament after 3 MPs suspected of having the virus died.

The bottom line: Nkurunziza’s passing, whether ultimately linked to COVID-19, represents another example of how devastating the virus has been in countries governed by authoritarian leaders. Russia and Brazil, whose leaders both downplayed the seriousness of the virus for political reasons, are currently facing the world’s worst outbreaks.

This pattern is daunting for the African continent where low testing rates, poor medical facilities and dysfunctional political systems in countries such as the Egypt, Tanzania and Algeria could lead to devastating outbreaks.

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