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Burundi changes tack as president declares COVID-19 'biggest enemy'

Burundi's new President Evariste Ndayishimiye says the government is now committed to fighting the new coronavirus
Burundi's new President Evariste Ndayishimiye says the government is now committed to fighting the new coronavirus Tchandrou NITANGA AFP/File
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Nairobi (AFP)

Burundi's new President Evariste Ndayishimiye has declared the coronavirus the country's "biggest enemy", in a major about-turn for a nation which has largely ignored the dangers of the virus.

Former president Pierre Nkurunziza, who died last month, and even Ndayishimiye himself, had until now downplayed the gravity of the pandemic, saying God had spared Burundi from its ravages.

Burundi held a full-blown campaign ahead of a May election, and unlike its neighbours has taken few measures to combat the spread of the virus.

Officially the country has reported only 170 cases and one death in two months.

Ndayishimiye was speaking late Tuesday after the swearing in of his new government in parliament.

"From tomorrow (Wednesday), I declare the COVID-19 pandemic the biggest enemy of Burundians, because it is clear it is becoming their biggest concern," he said.

"We firmly commit ourselves to fight this pandemic."

- 'Treated as a sorcerer' -

He called for "the strict respect for preventative measures which the health ministry will from now on display across the country".

He said to promote cleanliness, the government will subsidise 50 percent of the price of soap, and will lower the cost of water in the country.

He reminded citizens that tests for the virus were free, as was treatment for those who were ill, warning those who did not get tested when they had symptoms.

"If in future someone does not go and get tested in such a case, it means he wants to contaminate others voluntarily ... and he will be considered a sorcerer and treated as severely as one would be," he said.

Burundi only has a single testing centre, with fewer than 10 technicians capable of carrying out tests for the virus.

Ndayishimiye promised testing centres would be installed across the country.

"We will launch campaigns to test the population wherever positive cases of the virus are found," he said.

"An enemy must be hunted wherever he hides and even when his presence is suspected."

He called on health workers, officials, religious leaders and the media to mobilise the population to respect preventative measures.

"Everyone must know the coronavirus is a pandemic which transmits easily, and which kills if you take it lightly."

A high-ranking health ministry official told AFP on condition of anonymity that the turnaround comes after the World Bank donated $5 million (4,4 million euros) last month to help Burundi fight the virus.

In May, Burundi -- which has increasingly isolated itself in recent years -- expelled a team of World Health Organization experts who were supporting the country's response to the pandemic.

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