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Belarus and coronavirus: Lukashenko's business-as-usual approach is 'mind-blowing negligence'

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko talks with believers during the Orthodox Easter service at a church in a village on the outskirts of Minsk
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko talks with believers during the Orthodox Easter service at a church in a village on the outskirts of Minsk   -   Copyright  Nikolai Petrov/AP Photos
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With the rest of the continent on coronavirus lockdown, it's still business as usual in Belarus.

Alexander Lukashenko, its president, has advised drinking more vodka, while the country's top-flight football league is the only one still playing in Europe.

But there are no shortage of dissenting voices and the approach being followed in Minsk has created divisions.

Father-and-son Alexander and Dima Аleksejevy — who live in the town of Brest near the border with Poland — are a case in point.

Dima thinks the move to stop football elsewhere in Europe is “ridiculous”, something he attributes to a “silly psychosis” in the “spoiled” west.

He continues to support his team, FC Dynamo Brest, which came to prominence recently when it decided to replace its stay-at-home fans with mannequins.

But his sexagenarian father Alexander watches the team on television from home and is against his eldest son going to matches.

“Lukashenko is a complete idiot," said Alexander. "He is playing with fire and puts the lives of thousands of Belarusians in danger.”

His criticism of Lukashenko is not political - he had given Belarus' long-time president his unwavering support, until now.

Flawed advice

Few world leaders can match Lukashenko's scornful derision of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As well as drinking more vodka, his other eyebrow-raising tips for fending off the virus include “turn the steam on in the bathhouse”, “eat more garlic” and “sit behind the wheel of the tractor in the fields”.

When a prominent actor died of COVID-19 at the end of March, the Belarusian leader blamed the victim.

FC Dynamo Brest
Fans sit among mannequins with the faces of "virtual fans" who bought tickets online for the match between FC Dynamo Brest and FC Shakhter Soligorsk in Brest, BelarusFC Dynamo BrestAlexey Komelkov

“We requested people of venerable age to be more vigilant … he was about to turn 80, so why was he out on the streets and, moreover, still working?

"Look, his wife and daughter are fine, because they have a stronger immune system, and, he, poor thing, succumbed.”

As of April 21, Belarus has reported more than 6,000 infections and 51 COVID-19 deaths. Up to 76,000 Belarusians had been tested by April 16 in 24 stationary and mobile laboratories across the country, according to the country's health ministry.

“All the victims were suffering from different chronic illnesses,” a health ministry press release said.

The ministry did not respond to Euronews requests for comment on coronavirus in Belarus and the country’s leading epidemiologists were also reticent.

"A lockdown at this point would be a redundant measure," a doctor in a Minsk hospital told Euronews on the condition of anonymity.

"We see that some countries, like Sweden, have not implemented it, thus shunning a strain on the economy.”

A testing time

Belarus tests people with symptoms for COVID-19, as well as those who have been in close contact with confirmed cases.

The country, with a population of nearly 10 million, performs around 4,000 tests a day. Experts say that's too few.

Alexander Loban, a doctor from the Belarusian town of Grodno, who has spent 16 years in Dutch hospitals, was among the first Belarusian medics to ring the alarm about Belarus' approach to dealing with the pandemic.

Before flying to the capital Minsk from the Netherlands in mid-March, he sent an open letter to President Lukashenko, urging him to shut down all borders.

But that got him into trouble. Paramedics, accompanied by policemen, showed up at his front door. They said he'd just come from a highly infected country and insisted on taking his temperature. With 37.1℃ on the thermometer — which Loban now doubts — he was taken to hospital against his consent. He spent a week alone and was later released with no signs of the coronavirus.

Ideology, not epidemiology

“I am sure my hospitalisation was not for epidemiologic concerns, but for ideological reasons," Loban told Euronews.

"When the West resorts to lockdown and quarantine in curbing the pandemic, Lukashenko calls it brazenly 'mere flu'.

"An educated man would never speak such crap as the president … a collapse awaits Belarusian hospitals if the authorities continue downplaying the graveness of the situation.”

Loban believes COVID-19 cases in the country will begin soaring in the days to come.

“I am sure we are not hearing and will not be seeing credible statistics on the scope of the pandemic from the health ministry," he added. "Especially on the death toll.”

The doctor referred to the comments of Belarus' deputy health minister, Elena Bogdan, who said in a briefing on 9 April that if a patient with coronavirus and a record of chronic illnesses dies, the cause of death should be attributed to the latter, as the virus in the body has been “eliminated” during treatment.

“The approach is preposterous and in stark contrast with the rest of the world,” Loban insisted.

Proactive responsibility

Yet Belarus is not just Lukashenko, and institutions, especially in the capital city Minsk, are scrambling to take precautionary measures against the pandemic.

Minsk Metro
A worker cleans metro carriagesMinsk Metro

The Minsk Metro system has the carriages cleaned each day and posts photos of them on its website.

“We are taking it seriously,” Andrej Drob, spokesman of the Minsk Metro, told Euronews.

Even the Belarusian Orthodox Church, a predominant church in Belarus and a devoted supporter of the authoritarian president, is not taking any chances. It has asked people to stay away from churches for now and encouraged them to actively participate in masses held online.

“God hears us everywhere… if people, instead of continuously repeating the words “pandemic”, “coronavirus”, “COVID-19” since the outbreak, had repented and prayed to God, asking Him to forgive, we would perhaps [have] forgotten about the virus by now,” Mitropolit Pavel, head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, is quoted as saying on the church’s website.

According to SATIO, a Minsk-based market and opinion research company, 62 per cent of Belarusians, asked if they trust the Belarusian health system in the face of a pandemic, responded they feared its “collapse”. Only 17 per cent, mainly respondents in the countryside, said they trusted it and 13 per cent, mostly young, see the COVID-19 threat as “exaggerated”.

His foolhardy negligence is just mind-blowing
Alexander Аleksejev

The same survey showed that two-thirds have started to wash their hands more often and, notably, a significant 48 per cent avoid public hotspots now.

With COVID-19 cases expected to increase further, President Lukashenko remains unabashed.

“Our priority should be and is our economy," he said. "All of that will pass, which we already see happening in Europe. However, the economy will remain forever.”

He has said Belarus does not have the “luxury” of putting itself under quarantine. “What will we eat then?” he asked rhetorically.

It is namely the economic consequences of the pandemic that the Belarusian president fears most, experts believe.

'No strategy at all'

“Our highest authorities believe that Belarus, financially and technologically, cannot afford (taking) the measures that many other countries have implemented. Hence the ignorance, the inconsistencies (of the information and the statistics on COVID-19), the unpreparedness and the delay in the passing of necessary decisions. In a word, the Belarusian government has no strategy at all,” Janov Poleskij, a Belarusian political analyst, told Euronews.

“Many authoritarian regimes, including that of Belarus, use crises to restrain civil and political freedoms among other things. Not only does the coronavirus weaken the Belarusian regime, but the prolonged economic crisis, coupled with the worse new conditions of Russian oil imports, do also,” he underscored.

In a sign of economic trouble ahead, Belarus has this week asked the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) for a $1 billion (€920 million) loan to cope with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lukashenko has already lost one stalwart supporter – the older Аleksejev in Brest.

“I am not the only one who turned away from the president during the health crisis," Alexander said. "Many of my acquaintances did so too – his foolhardy negligence is just mind-blowing.”