While football across Africa has been suspended amidst the coronavirus pandemic, sport in Burundi continues unabated, with the Central African country yet to record a case of COVID-19.
The tiny nation — with an area of 27,834 km2 [just slightly bigger than the state of Maryland] — is one of the few territories in the world yet to be officially touched by the virus, and one of only a handful of countries worldwide where domestic football, and anything else with a crowd, continues.
The men’s President’s Cup and second division matches, as well as the top two tiers of women’s football, took place across the country this weekend, with fans in attendance, although it’s a decision that is proving divisive among the country’s footballing community.
Even though they play on, and opinions differ about that decision, Burundi is not ignorant of the external threat of COVID-19, and have already taken drastic steps to seemingly prevent their first case.
They were among the first African nations to appeal to the Confederation of African Football to reconsider the scheduling March’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, having refused to call up any Europe-based players for their double-header against Mauritania.
“The measure is taken because of the 14 days’ quarantine required to enter Burundi after having been [in Europe],” read a statement on the BFF’s website on March 13.
Since then, the country has yet to record a confirmed case of coronavirus, with strict measures being observed to limit the flow of people into the nation’s territory.
Only cargo planes are allowed to land at Bujumbura International Airport, while anyone arriving from affected countries must observe two weeks of quarantine.
“We respect the government’s measures,” Jeremie Manirakiza, the Executive Secretary of the Burundian Football Federation, told ESPN. “I believe that the problem is to treat this in a global context.
“It’s like [Catholic] Mass, many countries have closed the services, but in Burundi, they continue. There are no cases confirmed here, and no other explanations [needed].”
The decision to continue playing reflects the regulations across the country, where weddings, conferences, meetings and various forms of other entertainment continue without restriction.
It’s also generated support from the country’s other sporting stakeholders, with domestic basketball, beach soccer and volleyball competitions also being conducted at the weekend.
“The government has taken the necessary measures, except confinement,” Liliane Nshimirimana, President of the Association of Sports Journalists in Burundi, told ESPN.
“I support the idea of respecting the measures that have already been taken, but as there are no positive cases detected, nothing is preventing us from continuing our activities, including sports.
“We feel we’re safe. The local players are going ahead, relaxed, everyone is in agreement and these are measures set by the federation.
“All of the players and their teams are available and they are playing as normal. For those of us who are here in the country, we have no problems.
“We all agree that we should continue with our activities, there is no fear, or panic.”
While Burundi goalkeeper Justin Ndikumana has experienced first-hand the impact of coronavirus when the Kenyan football authorities closed down domestic football for his employers, Sofapaka, he can understand why there’s a different approach in his homeland.
“There still aren’t any cases in Burundi, so activities are continuing freely as normal,” he began.
“They’ve closed the borders, and even the airport, so if there are no people coming from outside, then there will be no contamination, although it is risky.
“We’ll wait to see what happens in June, as nobody knows exactly what’s waiting for us.”
Ndikumana understands why Burundi haven’t yet followed the steps of their regional neighbours, including Kenya, where football was halted after three cases had been confirmed.
“Here, as they already had positive cases, it was responsible to take this decision,” he added, “because the contamination of the virus happens very fast and you just don’t know.”
Burundians outside the country, who witness first-hand the impact of the virus in their adopted nations, appear more sceptical about their homeland’s approach to preventing the virus’s spread.
Nshimirimana acknowledges that the Burundian diaspora have offered words of warning, with only eight African countries still without a confirmed case, and Burundi the only one of those to continue with sports.
She said: “There are Burundians in exile who are the ones who go on social media and write things like how Burundi will have positive cases [despite the lack of such results], but there aren’t any, honestly, I swear in God’s name.
“Here in the country we all agree on observing the preventative measures taken by the government and we continue with our activities.”