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'We look like clowns': Belarus carries on as rest of Europe locks down

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In this photo taken on Friday, March 27, 2020, young fans react during the Belarus Championship soccer match between Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino and Belshina Bobruisk.
In this photo taken on Friday, March 27, 2020, young fans react during the Belarus Championship soccer match between Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino and Belshina Bobruisk.   -   Copyright  Sergei Grits/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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As national governments banned public gatherings across Europe, police fined citizens for breaking curfews and billions of people remained confined to their homes on Tuesday, the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, took in an ice hockey match.

Wearing knee guards and a hockey mask and surrounded by thousands of spectators, Lukashenko joked: "There are no viruses here. Did you see any flying around? I don't see them either.” Before joking that the cold conditions on the pitch were good for his health.

“(There's nothing) better than sport, especially in the cold. It's a real anti-viral medicine,” he said.

Belarus announced 152 cases of coronavirus this week and one death, but the nation has not followed its neighbours in restricting gatherings - as well as ice hockey, the country’ football league is still operational with dozens of games scheduled for the coming weekend.

AP reported that in the capital Minsk, protective masks are a rare sight, while factories, workplaces and restaurants are operating as usual. The only other European nation to resist social distancing in response to the virus so far is Sweden.

Ryhor Astapenia, a Belarus expert at Chatham House, told Euronews that Lukashenko's reluctance to follow the rest of Europe - and much of the world - into lockdown is likely economic: a lockdown would lead to a drastic recession in the country and unlike Western states, and even Russia, Belarus does not have the resources to bail out businesses and citizens.

"The second explanation is a psychological one: Lukashenka genuinely believes that the whole world overreacts," Astapenia added.

Indeed, asked about Belarus’s first fatality due to COVID-19, Lukashenko appeared to doubt the severity of the virus, even speculating that he may already have had it and recovered.

“I haven't been tested. I don't know if I've already had this virus and just didn't notice,” he said.

He previously said that the best way to prevent contracting COVID-19 was to visit bathhouses and drink vodka.

Critics in Belarus have argued that the stance taken by Lukashenko was making the country an international joke.

"Internationally, we currently look like clowns, whose ruler offers cures to treat the coronavirus: the bathhouse, vodka, tractors. This list has now widened to include ice, hockey and refrigerators. This doesn't look serious," Anatoly Lebedko, an opposition activist, told AP.

But the antics of Belarus’s eccentric autocrat aside, experts say that Belarus may actually be better prepared to deal with COVID-19 than other European states.

A 2013 report into the health sector in Belarus found that the country had more beds per capita than any other country in the CIS or the EU, 11.3 per 1,000 people in 2011. That compares to 3.4 in Italy and 3 in Spain, according to World Bank figures from 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
An empty highway to Russia at the Belarus-Russia border near Redki, Belarus, Wednesday, March 18, 2020.Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Rumen Dobrinsky, a senior research associate at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies and country expert for Bulgaria and Belarus, told Euronews that the relative strength of the healthcare system in the country was a legacy of the Soviet era.

“It was designed to be capable of dealing with waves of infectious diseases, which were widespread in the early Soviet times,” he said, reflected in the “existing vertical structure of sanitary epidemiological reconnaissance and control as well as in the number of hospital beds.”

“This structure has been well preserved after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and despite some degradation is still very much intact.”

Read more: Moscow pressuring us to merge with Russia, claims Belarus president

As for Lukashenko’s attitude towards social distancing, Dobrinsky guesses that Belarus - which has, like its neighbours, closed its borders - will eventually be forced to implement lockdown measures, as was the case of the UK, which was also initially reluctant to do so.

An early impetus to do so might have come from fans of the Belarussian football league, where fans on Wednesday confirmed that they would be boycotting games this weekend. Belarus is the only nation in Europe that is allowing games to go ahead despite COVID-19.

AP reported that a leading fan group at Neman Grodno says its members will stop attending games and they have urged supporters for other teams to do the same.

The fans have called on the national soccer federation to “draw on some courage and stop the Belarusian championship, as the rest of the world has done.”

Fans of Shakhter Soligorsk have also said they will stop going to games “until the epidemiological situation allows us to return to the stands.”

But they stopped short of calling for the season to be suspended.

The risk for Lukashenko, says Chatham House's Astapenia, is that COVID-19 becomes Lukashenko's 'Chernobyl' moment.

"Lukashenka is playing a dangerous game with not only public health, but own political role," he said.

"If the toll of infections and deaths will significantly increase, Belarusians will blame him for that. His popularity in society and within his political system will drop. "