As the Covid-19 pandemic rolls on there have been a steady stream of people who publicly dismissed the dangers of the virus, only to die of it shortly thereafter. Now the president of Burundi has likely joined that list, although officially his cause of death is currently being called a heart attack.
Covid-19 arrived later, at least in large numbers, in Africa than most of the rest of the world. Despite the limited health infrastructure and the greater logistical challenges of imposing lockdowns where poverty is so prevalent, most African nations took advantage of the extra time, instituting policies designed to limit viral spread. So far these seem to have at least delayed the impact seen elsewhere.
Burundi has been an exception. President Pierre Nkurunziza not only refused to take drastic action, but he also kept sporting events and other large public gatherings open. World Health Organization experts were expelled from the country, while most nations in similar positions are welcoming any help they can get.
Unbothered by the spiraling death toll elsewhere, a spokesperson for Nkurunziza told BBC News in March: “Burundi is an exception among other nations because it is a country which gave God first place, a God who guards and protects [us] from all misfortune.”
Only 85 cases of the disease are officially recognized in the country, with one death, but with a population of 11.8 million and fewer than 400 tests conducted the figures are unlikely to be accurate.
President Nkurunziza was rushed to hospital last week, and has now been declared dead. Nkurunziza was 55 and had led his country for 15 years, with his term scheduled to finish in August of this year. So far official channels have only reported the president as suffering a heart attack, but following previous reports Nkurunziza’s wife had been treated for Covid-19 in Kenya, many are jumping to the conclusion his death was Covid-related.
Kenya’s Star quotes an unnamed Western diplomat as saying, “He had coronavirus but no one would say so because the president played it down all along.”
If so, Nkurunziza may have directly infected others, in addition to his policies allowing the disease to spread, having attended a volleyball game earlier on the day he was rushed to hospital.
If Nkurunziza’s died of Covid-19 he would be the first head of government to do so.
Covid-19 was not the first example of Nkurunziza’s anti-science views. He justified his harsh crackdowns on LGBTI citizens – being gay is a crime in Burundi, with people regularly imprisoned – using pseudoscientific claims, winning him support from far-right groups.
Nkurunziza was originally credited with helping his nation recover from a decade of conflict, but within a few years was responsible for increasing human rights abuses, with at least 100,000 people fleeing the country and many killed. The Burundi government has been investigated for "crimes against humanity," and prior to his death Nkurunziza was unable to leave his country as he risked arrest by the International Criminal Court.