Skip to main content

Doubts greet Mauritania claim of total control over coronavirus spread

Activists question whether the country has only one patient with Covid-19, of eight recorded cases, while testing and borders remain weak points
Men are seen outside the Mosque Saudique after Friday prayers in Nouakchott on 17 January 2020 (AFP)
By in
Dakar, Senegal

Just a day after marking the start of the holy month of Ramadan with a prayer for the lifting of the coronavirus pandemic, Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani declared his country to be virus free.

Crossing the river: Black Mauritanians haunted by mass expulsion to Senegal
Read More »

"This was done thanks to God first, then thanks to your efforts," he tweeted to the nation on Sunday, 26 April.

But what appeared to be a quick answer to the president's prayers was upended as the country announced another case last Thursday.

Still, with just one live Covid-19 case, Mauritania has achieved what will take months or years for many countries.

Some, however, have begun to question the official count.

Meanwhile, rights groups have told Middle East Eye that measures imposed to fight the virus are affecting society's most vulnerable.

With just eight confirmed cases, including six recoveries and one death, Mauritania is one of the few countries - along with the likes of the Vatican and Burundi - to have recorded single-digit infections.

"We made the fight against the coronavirus a top priority since its appearance in the country in mid-March," said Cheikh Tidiane Diouwara, a Switzerland-based Mauritanian analyst with close ties to the presidency.

"The country took containment measures long before other African countries and even before France."

Within days of the first cases, international borders were closed and travel within the country was restricted. A ministerial committee was set up to fight the virus. It included Foreign Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who headed the UN's mission to fight Ebola.

Schools, restaurants and markets were shut, and a 6pm-6am curfew was put in place.

Cost of lockdown

But these measures have also come at a cost.

"I've never seen anything like this. Every day we're seeing two or three [crime] cases, including rape and theft," said Brahim Bilal Ramdhane, who runs the Sahel Foundation, a human rights organisation based in the capital, Nouakchott.

"We usually have one case a day or one every two days."

The foundation mainly supports the Haratin, the poor descendants of black former slaves, and the largest ethnic group in Mauritania. Ramdhane was born and lived for 20 years as a slave himself, and the practice still exists in the country.

Ramdhane suggested that the confinement measures have only intensified the social exclusion and discrimination Haratins already face.

As an example, he pointed to the rape of three young Haratin sisters between the ages of two and six by a French national in the heart of Nouakchott last week. A 40-year-old man has since been arrested and has confessed to the crimes.

Haratins live day to day, Ramdhane said, with some selling cooked meals on street corners in the evenings or working as helpers in wealthy homes during the day.

The strict curfew and the financial squeeze felt even at the top of Mauritanian society means that many people are now out of work.

"It's really affecting their lives. Most of them do not have enough to eat," Ramdhane said.

In other instances, security forces have at times resorted to violence against those breaking the curfew, with one video circulating on social media showing police beating, in the middle of a Nouakchott street, those who had turned out to protest against an activist's arrest.

To help the hardest hit by the pandemic restrictions, Ghazouani announced on 25 March a raft of measures, including free water bills for two months and the lifting of custom duties on basic foodstuffs. The state also promised to care for 30,000 families for three months through a 12m euro ($13m) fund.

But Ramdhane said that after more than two months the cash is yet to materialise.

Diouwara, the analyst, said the government is in the process of identifying those who will receive the relief aid and will distribute it "as soon as it has completed this preliminary work," without giving a timetable.

In the meantime, civil society and businesspeople have mobilised to deliver food to those most in need.

The start of the Muslim month of Ramadan has also brought relief to many, with the curfew time pushed back to begin three hours later, at 9pm.

Weak borders

While Mauritania's government mulls over how best to ease back toward normality, not everyone is convinced by the government's figures.

"We really don't trust in [Ghazouani's] declaration because there has not been mass testing, and even those people who were in quarantine are back in the community without being tested," said Balla Toure Chinguittel, an activist with IRA, an influential slave abolitionist movement.

"We cannot deny that declaration, but we cannot also believe in it."

For its part, the government said it had quarantined and tested at least 3,000 people.

Most of Mauritania's cases have been imported from abroad, and so, before reopening its international borders, officials will be monitoring neighbouring countries, all of which have a far higher number of cases.

The movement of Mauritanians back and forth across the country's porous borders with Senegal and Mali, where many share ethnic ties, may be of particular concern.

"I can say that we are the African champion for the time being," said Diouwara. "However, the effort must be continuous because no one has fully mastered this virus as yet."