Can Burkina Faso’s Haphazard Response Contain COVID-19?

Can Burkina Faso’s Haphazard Response Contain COVID-19?
A woman wearing a face mask holds her child at a marketplace in the Nioko-2 suburb of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, May 14, 2020 (photo courtesy of Clair MacDougall).
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso—Residents in the capital of this small, West African country rejoiced last weekend as their beloved corner bars, known as maquis, reopened seven weeks after the government had ordered them closed to curb the spread of COVID-19. In a maquis in the suburb of Wemtenga on Sunday evening, beer bottles clinked and chairs sidled closer together as patrons smoked and swayed to Ivorian music under drops of colored light pouring from a plastic disco ball. That same day, authorities had called on citizens to respect an earlier government order to wear masks—an edict that many Burkinabe, including those in the maquis that night, have chosen to ignore.

The seemingly contradictory orders were typical of Burkina Faso’s erratic response to the pandemic, which has been full of stops and starts. The government last month ordered citizens to wear masks, giving them more than a week to prepare, yet few people have complied. Authorities ordered a curfew, but it was relaxed soon after reports and videos emerged of abuses by security forces, including floggings of violators. Schools were scheduled to reopen last week, only to be ordered to stay closed until June 1. The government also recently buckled under pressure from the Federation of Islamic Associations, which organized demonstrations against mosque closures, and now many houses of worship have reopened.

In late April, the coordinator of the government’s response, Martial Ouedraogo, was sacked after questions were raised about the accuracy of his diagnosis of the first person to die in the country of COVID-19, opposition lawmaker Rose Marie Compaore. Compaore’s family members had raised doubts about the cause of her death in mid-March, suggesting she may have died of complications from diabetes. That incident cast a cloud over the reliability of the government’s information related to the pandemic.

Land and air borders remain closed, and the regions of Burkina Faso with cases were quarantined up until May 4. The country remains under a modified curfew, and many humanitarian staff who were responding to the security crisis in the country, as Burkina Faso struggles to combat an ongoing jihadist insurgency, are working remotely. Many diplomats, including those stationed at the U.S. Embassy, have been evacuated.

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