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Burundi begins Covid-19 vaccination despite hesitancy among its people

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Burundi, one of the last countries in the world to inoculate its people against Covid-19, received its first batch of vaccines on Thursday after a major about-turn by the government.

The East African country, whose leaders had previously downplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, took delivery of 500,000 donated doses of China's Sinopharm vaccine at a ceremony in the economic capital Bujumbura.

"Vaccinations against Covid-19 begin next week if all goes well," the health ministry said on Twitter on Wednesday.

Burundi's change of heart leaves the largely closed-off nation of Eritrea as the only African country that has yet to launch vaccination campaigns, while North Korea insists it has no cases of the disease and has rejected any vaccines.

Burundi only rarely makes public announcements about Covid infection data but according to the latest figures reported to the World Health Organization (WHO), it has recorded 19,441 confirmed cases with 14 deaths.

Burundians had mixed feelings about the vaccines.

"It's good the vaccine is coming because it was a disease that was killing many people. I think it will be a good thing to have this vaccine in our country," said 23-year-old entrepreneur Gracia Iteka.

But shoemaker Egide Nsabimana, 32, said the shots weren't necessary.

"In our country, Burundi, this pandemic was not serious... Here we suffer from the flu, this vaccine is for white people, we don't need it here."

Agathon Rwasa, leader of the opposition National Congress for Liberty (CNL), called on the government to intensify an awareness campaign about Covid, and said it should ensure enough supplies of the vaccine.

Last year, President Evariste Ndayishimiye declared the coronavirus Burundi's "biggest enemy".

Previously, Ndayishimiye and his predecessor Pierre Nkurunziza, who died suddenly in June 2020 amid speculation he had contracted Covid, had minimised the gravity of the pandemic, saying God had spared Burundi from its ravages.

Burundi's health ministry said Wednesday the vaccination campaign would initially target healthcare providers, people aged over 60 or with underlying health problems, as well as people travelling abroad and any volunteers.

Thursday's delivery of the Chinese vaccines is not connected to the expected arrival of doses from the World Bank at the end of the month, said Health Minister Thaddee Ndikumana.

The vaccine drive accompanies other measures introduced as part of a new six-month Covid-19 response plan in the country of 12 million people.

The government is introducing a health pass from November 1, with all people travelling inside the country from Bujumbura -- the lakeside city hardest hit by the virus -- obliged to have a Covid-19 test and carry a certificate.

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