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Medical workers protesting in Minsk. August 13, 2020.

Doctors behind bars Amid the coronavirus pandemic’s second wave, medical workers in Belarus get swept up in the opposition crackdown

Source: Meduza
Medical workers protesting in Minsk. August 13, 2020.
Medical workers protesting in Minsk. August 13, 2020.
Yauhen Yerchak / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

The opposition protests in Belarus have been ongoing for more than three months now, despite the fact that demonstrators opposing President Alexander Lukashenko are beaten, arrested, and fined large amounts of money regularly. According to civil society organizations, there are at least a hundred medical workers among the victims of the crackdown. At the same time, doctors are trying to fend off the coronavirus pandemic’s second wave. According to the official statistics alone, about 1,500 people in Belarus are falling ill daily, but healthcare workers maintain that the actual number of cases is much higher. Meduza recounts how the Belarusian authorities are persecuting healthcare workers amid the worsening pandemic and shortages of medical personnel.

When the state is a coronavirus denier

“I call this coronavirus nothing but psychosis and I will never give this up because together with you I have already experienced many psychoses, and we know what this led to. I am absolutely convinced that this is another psychosis of the same kind, which is to someone’s advantage and to the detriment of others,” said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on March 19, 2020.

At that time, all of the countries bordering Belarus had closed their borders due to COVID-19. But Lukashenko was adamant: “I’m absolutely convinced that we can suffer more from panic than from the virus itself.”

Instead of traditional methods for preventing the spread of viruses, like encouraging masks, social distancing, and hand washing, the Belarusian president recommended “poisoning the virus with vodka and the sauna” and “breathing in smoke from a bonfire more often.” While most countries were introducing quarantine restrictions, Minsk hosted a Victory Day parade. By that time, according to the official statistics alone, more than 140 Belarusian had died from COVID-19.

Not long after, news about the deaths of doctors began appearing in the media regularly — many of these cases were documented as ordinary pneumonia or the flu. Hospitals couldn’t cope with the in-flow of patients; the dead were buried in closed coffins, but Alexander Lukashenko stood his ground, “Nobody has died of the coronavirus, they are dying of chronic diseases.”

Today, Belarus, like many other countries, is experiencing the coronavirus pandemic’s second wave. This time, the authorities aren’t denying the problem entirely. However, in conversation with Meduza, Belarusian medical workers underscored that the healthcare system is failing. Now, maternity hospitals and many city hospitals are being reprofiled as coronavirus treatment centers; the majority of Belarusian cities have introduced mandatory mask regimes, but it’s almost impossible to get medical help or get tested quickly due to the workload hospitals are facing.

On Sunday, November 22, Belarus recorded 1,564 new cases of the coronavirus — in total, more than 124,000 Belarusians have fallen ill since the start of the pandemic. So far this fall, the indicators of daily morbidity are already significantly higher than they were in the spring and doctors believe that the official statistics are seriously underreported. Mikhail, a doctor from a Minsk city clinical hospital (who, like the majority of the healthcare workers Meduza interviewed, preferred not to disclose his last name) emphasized that these numbers need to be multiplied by ten at the very least. He explained that the statistics are being severely manipulated: for example, in order to lower the number of recorded deaths from COVID-19, doctors have been instructed to specify other diagnoses first. According to Mikhail’s assessment, Belarus is now approaching the scenario Italy experienced at the start of the pandemic, when the virus spread exponentially across the country. Beds in Minsk hospitals are already full and increasingly, doctors have to choose which patients to send to intensive care. Civil society activists also maintain that the statistics are being underreported 5 to 10 times over.

On top of the influx of COVID-19 patients, for the last three months Belarusian medical workers have been treating victims of police violence regularly. Anti-Lukashenko marches take place across Belarus every week and law enforcement officers have been beating demonstrators and using less-lethal weapons against them consistently. 

Injured protesters have also been brought to the hospital where Mikhail works. This was the case in the initial days of the protests from August 9–11 — immediately after the 2020 presidential elections.

“[Some] of the most memorable injuries: a 60-year-old patient with a heel wound, crushed by a flash-bang grenade; a deep wound in the thigh of a man about 40 years old, also from a grenade; a forearm wounded by a rubber bullet. From the outside it all looked as though the patients were being brought in after a terrorist attack, an earthquake, or military action,” the doctor recalled. 

‘Employees with such political views can’t work here’

Belarusian medical workers carried out their first protests against Alexander Lukashenko on August 12: they took the streets and formed solidarity chains to oppose police violence against protesters. They began facing persecution immediately. For example, intensive care physician Bogdan Shilnikovsky, who attended the solidarity rally on August 12, was taken to the detention center on Okrestina Street (over the course of the protests, this jail became an infamous symbol of police brutality in Minsk). He left the detention center in an ambulance and ended up intensive care — Shilnikovsky, who is diabetic, wasn’t given any insulin while in custody. 

More than 4,000 Belarusian medical workers have signed an open letter to the authorities demanding that they end police violence, free political prisoners, and invalidate the official results of the presidential elections.

The 2020 Belarusian presidential election took place on August 9. According to election officials, incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko won approximately 80 percent of the vote and his main opponent, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya), won about 10 percent.

The opposition maintains that the results were actually the complete opposite: numerous protocols from election commissions and independent exit polls show that the majority of Belarusians voted for Tikhanovskaya. As such, the opposition leader has not acknowledged Lukashenko’s proclaimed victory and insists that she is the legitimate president-elect of Belarus.

The exact number of medical workers who have faced persecution remains unknown. According to reports from the Medical Solidarity Fund (established during the protest wave to help medical workers), at least 15 people have been fired from their jobs for political reasons — among them are rectors of medical universities, instructors from Belarusian State Medical University (BGMU), as well as doctors and nurses. Dr. Alexander Mrochek, the director of the Cardiology Center, was fired on August 27 — he doesn’t exclude the possibility that his dismissal was due to the fact that he didn’t prevent his subordinates from taking part in opposition rallies. 

Currently, at least 20 medical workers are under administrative arrest and more than 150 have received fines over the course of the protests. The most recent, high-profile arrests involving medical workers took place on October 27, when law enforcement officers arrested 10 Cardiology Center employees and a doctor from the Fourth Clinical Hospital all at the same time (the medical workers had formed a solidarity chain on Dzerzhinskogo Avenue in Minsk). They all received fines ranging from about $250 to $320.

The crackdown on healthcare workers is still ongoing. On November 19, police officials arrested the 20-year-old administrator of a Telegram channel for opposition-leaning medical workers called Belye Khalaty (White Robes). The channel’s administrator is now in custody as a suspect in a criminal case “on organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order.” He faces up to three years in prison.

The Attorney General’s Office has also opened a criminal case against an emergency hospital doctor, who shared medical records from the examination of 31-year-old opposition protester Raman Bandarenka, who died after being hospitalized on November 12. While state investigators and Lukashenko have claimed that Bandarenka had “alcohol poisoning,” doctors maintain that he died of severe head trauma. 

The medical workers Meduza interviewed underscored that taking part in any opposition demonstration comes with the risk of facing pressure from the authorities and/or at work. Anna, an anesthesiologist and intensive care physician at Minsk Regional Clinical Hospital, told Meduza that she was arrested while holding a placard at a peaceful rally in solidarity with other persecuted medical workers. At the police station, they wrote her up for “participation in an unauthorized public event.” Anna is now facing 15 days in administrative custody and, on top of that, the chief physician at her hospital tried to fire her following her arrest.

“They told me: ‘Employees with such political views can’t work in a state institution.’ The chief physician said that he would seek grounds for my dismissal, though he noted that he had no complaints about my work as specialist,” the doctor recalled.

Anna’s colleagues opposed the chief physician’s decision to fire her. They gathered in the hospital’s auditorium and presented an ultimatum: if anyone were to be fired for political reasons, all of the doctors would hand in their resignations. The ultimatum worked — Anna got to keep her job.

‘If they had it their way they would put us up against the wall’

Belarusian medical workers often hold pickets right outside of their hospitals. On October 26, Dr. Nikolai Kozich, a specialist at the Gomel Regional Tuberculosis Hospital, decided to take part in one of these demonstrations. He was arrested and jailed for 15 days. This was his second arrest during the protests — he was also detained on September 13, while taking part in a solidarity chain with his family. The first time around, the doctor had to serve eight days in jail.

“When we were transported to the court, the officers didn’t speak to us very politely: it was swearing and insults. They said that we are fascists and that if they had it their way they would put us up against the wall,” Nikolai told Meduza. 

The detention center’s administration didn’t allow Nikolai access to necessary medicines and all “politicals” were denied books. They were only allowed one shower per week.

After his second arrest, Nikolai was fired for failed work performance.

Nikolai Kozich’s personal archive

“The head doctor came to visit me at the [police station] and said that she was firing me. When I had already served the 15 days and there were about two hours before the end of my sentence, they put me in a paddy wagon with all of my things and drove me two hours away from my home. As far as I understand, they didn’t want anyone to meet me at the entrance to the [detention center].”

Nikolai Kozich, in conversation with “Meduza”

Andrey Lyubetsky is a well-known oral surgeon in Belarus. On October 11, he was arrested at one of the Sunday protests in Minsk (the opposition has made demonstrating on Sundays a tradition since the presidential vote); the demonstration that day had been dubbed the March of Dignity

According to Andrey, riot police (OMON) officers and people with weapons resembling internal troops surrounded protesters near Zybitskaya Street. Several people with machine guns ran up to him, hit him on the head, and threw him into a police van. During the arrest, he tried to escape — one of the security officers tried to hit him in the stomach with the barrel of a gun, but Andrey managed to dodge the blow. He tried talking to the riot police officers in the paddy wagon, but to no avail.

“After a few minutes I realized that they probably wouldn’t beat me and I tried to talk to them. I told them what my job is and that I shouldn’t be kneeling. Then one of them replied: ‘I don’t give a f*** who you are.’ When I was able to look around, I saw that the majority of the security officers were women. I touched the back of my head — there was blood. One of them bandaged my head. The rest of us didn’t talk,” he recalled.

The doctor was taken to a prison in Zhodino — a city located 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) from Minsk. He spent three days in a cramped cell. The detainees weren’t given mattresses or blankets and there weren’t enough places for everyone to sleep. Andrey slept on a metal bench. “There was a trial, I was taken along the corridor to a small room, there was a judge and a secretary inside. I was lucky that all the Minsk judges were busy and we encountered regional ones; they’re more forgiving. It also played into my hands that I’m the father of many children and a surgeon,” he explained. During the hearing, Andrey avoided arrest — he was fined $50. 

‘The riot policemen told us we would be better off dead’

The crackdown hasn’t spared medical students either. After Alexander Lukashenko said “those who attended rallies lose the right to be students,” many university rectors began expelling students en masse. 

Ekaterina, a student at Minsk Medical University, told Meduza that back in September, the administration called students in to talk to a prosecutor, who told them that they could be punished for taking part in demonstrations.

A number of students were arrested on October 26, when nationwide strikes began in Belarus. A few days later, the detainees were told they were no longer students. According to Ekaterina, many of the students were allowed to return to their studies after that, but they were warned that repeated involvement in demonstrations would lead to definitive expulsion. After that, several people left the country to continue their studies abroad.

Ekaterina was arrested on September 9. “The riot policemen told us we would be better off dead. That we hadn’t achieved anything and that’s why our parents are working in collective farm pigpens so their children can study in the capital. They beat a man in front of us and then took us to the police station and sat us in a common room, where the head of this department hit me on the head,” she said. 

Medical workers protesting in Minsk on September 9, 2020
AP / Scanpix / LETA

Afterwards, Ekaterina was taken to the detention center on Okrestina Street. She spent the night in a cold, concrete cell. In the morning, a representative from the university administration came to the detention center. Ekaterina was released after being handed a fine.

“The university administration got us out of Okrestina. The administration told us not to do this anymore and said that they had generously forgiven the first time,” she recalled.

‘A battle between intellect and brute force’

Established during the protest wave, the Medical Solidarity Fund is working to defend the rights of Belarusian healthcare workers. In addition to organizing the open letter from medical workers, which more than 4,000 professionals signed, they are helping them to find lawyers and pay fines, and drawing attention to the crackdown. The foundation works in cooperation with the organizations BYSOL and By_help, which have raised more than two million euros (about $2.4 million) to help persecuted opposition protesters.

Minsk doctor Anastasia Pilipchik, one of the initiators behind the campaign, told Meduza that there more than 17 PhDs and 150 PhD candidates have signed the open letter already. 

“I call it a battle between intellect and brute force. This is unimaginable given the spread of the coronavirus infection and the shortage of medical workers. We’ve even made up a joke through the tears: ‘At the moment, you could hold a nationwide consilium in prison.’ The [number] of doctors who are serving 15 days is very high,” Pilipchik underscored.

The other Belarusian doctors Meduza interviewed agree. They note that against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic’s second wave, hospitals are already experiencing shortages of medical workers and new doctors are being arrested for participating in protests. “In Belarus, there was already a serious lack of medical personnel even before the pandemic and now the number of doctors has decreased, because someone was [given] 12 days, someone ten, and someone else eight,” one of the Belarusian healthcare workers told Meduza. But suppressing the protests is more important to the authorities, he added. Meanwhile, the majority of doctors who are continuing to work and falling ill, including due to shortages of personal protective equipment, aren’t taking sick leave or getting tested — they’re continuing to go to work, said the head of the Medical Solidarity Fund, Andrey Tkachev. 

It seems as though Lukashenko is also aware of the shortage of medical workers. But he has once again interpreted the issue in a particular way: back in early November, he openly threatened Belarusian healthcare workers who made the decision to go work abroad (for example, in Poland) during the pandemic. “I want to warn you: we have no extra doctors. We need to treat our people ourselves. But, following your principle, we won’t keep anyone. However, you need to understand: [if] you left you won’t be coming back, you’ll work there and earn the big money that you left for,” said Lukashenko. 

Story by Alexey Shumkin

Translation by Eilish Hart

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