The president without a plan Alexander Lukashenko still insists nobody’s going to die from COVID-19. What on earth is happening in Belarus?
As COVID-19 cases escalate in Belarus, medical workers and ordinary people have run out of PPE
From April 3 through April 14, the official number of coronavirus cases confirmed in Belarus multiplied by more than nine times, rising from 351 to 3,281. The national Health Ministry said that growth was due both to the spread of the virus and to a significant increase in testing — more than 71,000 tests had been conducted as of April 14. April 3, meanwhile, was the day when the Ministry announced that all patients diagnosed with moderate or severe pneumonia would be tested for COVID-19; the decision followed a spike in infections in Vitebsk. As President Alexander Lukashenko explained on April 13, the situation in Belarus’s fourth-largest city is now on the mend, but as little as half a week ago, up to 280 new cases were being recorded there every day. That makes for one pneumonia case per day per 1,350 residents. For comparison, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has reported that last week, the Russian capital saw about 1,300 new pneumonia cases daily, or one case per day per 9,750 residents.
Belarus’s Health Ministry now reports that about 340 – 360 new COVID-19 cases are confirmed every day throughout the country. The agency predicts that the peak of Belarus’s epidemic will come in late April or early May. In the meantime, the rapid spread of the disease has led to deficits in personal protective equipment (PPE) even among medical workers. The Health Ministry has put restrictions in place on how many masks, sanitizer bottles, and doses of certain medicines any one individual can buy at a pharmacy. Lukashenko has vowed to fire his cabinet if he discovers that “there isn’t enough of anything in the pharmacies, the grocery stores, or the hospitals, especially for doctors” but done nothing of the sort amid the current shortage. Still, the president has continued to insist that Belarus’s coronavirus situation isn’t catastrophic, and he denies that the illness is spreading exponentially.
President Lukashenko claims that nobody in the country will die of COVID-19, but 40 already have
As of April 15, 40 patients with officially confirmed cases of COVID-19 had died in Belarus. Two days previously, Lukashenko argued that no one in the country was dying or would die of the disease. In his reasoning, patients who have COVID-19 die of previously existing chronic illnesses, and the new coronavirus only creates an environment in which those conditions develop faster (while this can be true, the disease can also be fatal on its own). Lukashenko called on Belarusians diagnosed with COVID-19 not to worry and claimed that the country’s medical workers have already found a cocktail of medications to cure the disease (neither he nor the national Health Ministry indicated what those medications might be). “Nobody is going to die of coronavirus in our country. I’m announcing this publicly. It’s my firmly held conviction,” he said.
Lukashenko has blamed COVID-19 patients for their own deaths when asked to comment on the issue. “I mean, c’mon, we asked him to — if somebody’s going to turn 80 tomorrow, then why are you walking around on the street, let alone working?” he said, referring to the death of 75-year-old Vitebsk-based actor Viktor Dashkevich. When commenting on the death of veteran and pensioner Vladimir Sidorov, Lukashenko added, “[Vitebsk Regional Executive Committee Chair Nikolai] Sherstnev briefed me yesterday about his latest case. I asked him, ‘Well, why did this guy die?” and he said, ‘Mr. Lukashenko, sir, how can you keep living if your weight is 135 kilograms?”
Many Belarusians have found Lukashenko’s statements on the current pandemic to be unethical and used social media to express their views under the hashtag #прашчальнаесловапрэзидзента, or “the president’s parting words.” The viral online challenge features journalists, writers, and other public figures as well as ordinary citizens imagining what “obituaries” Lukashenko might utter for them, parodying his glib commemorations of those who have already died.
There’s no official quarantine in Belarus, but there is a grassroots “people’s quarantine”
On April 11, a World Health Organization (WHO) delegation recommended that Belarus tighten its social distancing restrictions by banning sports competitions and other public events, shifting schools and universities to distance learning, providing quarantine services to those infected, and limiting non-essential transit, especially among high-risk groups. “Belarus is entering a new phase in the evolution of the outbreak,” said Patrick O’Connor, the delegation’s leader, at the conclusion of the expert group’s five-day visit.
Still, Lukashenko has argued that Belarus lacks the funds to institute a full-scale quarantine. “Quarantines, curfews, and so on… Listen, that would be the simplest thing. We could do it in a day. But then what would we eat, huh?” he said in an April 7 meeting. In reality, the Belarusian head of state has refrained not only from curfews and business closures but from any significant social distancing restrictions at all. The country’s borders are still open; cafés, theaters, and malls haven’t closed; a soccer championship is still set to take place; and the traditional May 9 Victory Day parade is supposed to go on as planned, with Russian and Chinese soldiers taking part. Only the cities of Minsk and Vitebsk, the epicenters of the epidemic in Belarus, have put in place limited measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Leisure and entertainment venues there now have limited hours, fairs and exhibits have been closed, and some preventative hygiene measures have been made mandatory in city businesses.
Despite the fact that even those minimal steps have not been taken in the rest of Belarus, the country has been somewhat united in a “people’s quarantine.” According to the research firm Satio, about 48 percent of Belarusians had stopped attending public events by the end of March. Many have voluntarily self-isolated, causing palpable losses in the retail and service industries. Some cafés and restaurants have either closed or shifted toward takeout and delivery. Grocery home delivery services are on the rise, while malls and beauty salons have stayed empty. Theater and museum attendance is significantly lower than the norm. Some parents have stopped bringing their children to school, forcing the government to make compromises: even though Lukashenko has publicly opposed any changes to the academic year, spring break for primary and secondary schools was still extended for two weeks. In Minsk, the local government has gone so far as to let parents decide voluntarily whether or not to send their children to school, and officials have recommended that universities switch to online coursework. Satio’s March survey showed that about 70 percent of Belarusians favor a total ban on public events. More than half would like to see all educational institutions closed and as many people working from home as possible.
Lukashenko has continued to mock the pandemic and shake hands during meetings
The Belarusian government’s treatment of the coronavirus pandemic has not been consistent across the board. Despite President Lukashenko’s actions, the national Health Ministry has officially called on the population to follow social distancing rules, stay home when they can, and wear masks. Some state organizations have recommended working and learning from home. On the other hand, though, Lukashenko himself regularly jokes about COVID-19, calling fears about the new coronavirus “psychotic” and even hinting that the phenomenon is a global conspiracy. Since the first coronavirus cases were recorded in Belarus itself, the president has also suggested a veritable bouquet of supposed cures: tractors, saunas, vodka, hockey, butter, baby goats, and firewood smoke. Lukashenko later said his recommendations were only jokes.
The president has also told the press that the new coronavirus hasn’t stopped him from shaking hands, hugging, or pursuing his usual schedule. As the outbreak has spread, Lukashenko has visited factories, held government hearings, and played ice hockey. Other executive branch officials have followed his example: not a single one has yet appeared in public wearing a mask. “I’d feel a bit ashamed if I wore a mask to the grocery store,” Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei told TUT.by.
Belarus’s official data on the COVID-19 pandemic has come under scrutiny amid Lukashenko’s actions. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda called his counterpart’s behavior “bravado” and argued that the actual number of coronavirus cases in Belarus far exceeds official statistics. Belarusian Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich has also warned that the government isn’t doing enough to inform citizens, though she has also spread misinformation about the coronavirus herself. Still, there is currently no concrete evidence that Belarus’s Health Ministry is intentionally deflating its statistics on coronavirus infections and fatalities.
Translation by Hilah Kohen