In power for 26 years, president Lukashenko pokes fun at the risks of Covid-19 while trying to preserve the economy
Praveen S. – Brasil de Fato
Belarus is the only European country that did not adopt any social distancing measures during the pandemic. As of Saturday May 2nd, the country had 15 thousand patients diagnosed with Covid-19. The number of cases doubled in 10 days, with 156,8 infections per 100,000 inhabitants – three times more than Brasil, where the president is also trivializing the risks of coronavirus.
The average daily number of new cases in Belarus is over 900, resulting in 93 deaths a day from Covid-19. The capital Minsk, and the city of Vitebsk in the north of the country, are the areas most affected.
Besides Belarus and Brasil, only the heads of state of Nicaragua and Tajikistan are maintaining a posture of denial in relation to the risks of the novel coronavirus.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), social distancing – associated with hygiene and testing measures – is the most effective form of combating Covid-19 – which has killed more than 24,000 people worldwide over the last four months.
Research shows that 70% of Belorussians are in favor of ample isolation measures. In Brasil, that number is 52%, the last Datafolha Institute poll shows.
On April 28th, a WHO report characterized the epidemiological situation in Belarus as “worrisome” and demanded the “implementation of a comprehensive strategy immediately”, which would involve social distancing measures, an upgrade of testing systems and standardized triage procedures in international entry points.
Alexander Lukashenko rose to power in Belarus in 1994, three years after the country broke off from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Nicknamed the “last European dictator”, the president admits to having “an authoritarian style of government”. Today, Belarus is the only country in the continent to carry out death sentences.
Although Russia is their main diplomatic and commercial partner, recent pressure by president Vladmir Putin for the reunification of the two countries has been souring relations.
In February, Putin suggested “the incorporation of Belarus in exchange for cheap energy”, according to Lukashenko. The country depends on petroleum and natural gas that Russia provides, and the proposal was seen as economic blackmail.
Without a reunification deal, Russia cut energy supplies and Belarus had to find oil elsewhere, like Norway.
What about the coronavirus?
According to the local press, the reason the country hasn’t adopted any isolation measures is Lukashenko’s obsession for economic numbers. A growth in GDP for three consecutive years, with unemployment below 0,5% is the president’s main argument against reunification.
The economy promises to be the main issue debated in the upcoming August 30th elections, when Lukashenko will be running for his sixth term. The country’s currency, the Belorussian ruble, dropped 20% in value since the start of the year due to the energy crisis and a fall in exports to China. In the president’s view, halting economic activities could be fatal to public coffers and his own image.
“It’s better to live on your feet than die on your knees”, Lukashenko said in April, assuring people that isolation measures would be an act of cowardice in the face of the coronavirus and the economic, and political crisis.
On April 25th, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development lent around 100 million dollars to Belarus, which is also trying to obtain U$5,4 billion with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Brazilian lawyer José Renato Peneluppi Jr. has been in the city of Hronda – 280 kilometers west of Minsk – since January 31st. He is waiting to return to Wuhan, China, where he has worked for more than 10 years. China’s borders have been closed since March 26th in response to the pandemic.
“Lukashenko tries to lessen people’s fears and keep the economy afloat. This bet puts people’s lives at risk”, he tells us. The lawyer from Brazil observes however, that a risk of collapse in the healthcare system starts to create contradictions between the president’s discourse and what the government is actually doing.
“On the weekend of both the Catholic and Orthodox Easter celebrations, there were guidelines that mass be given outside. It’s a sign that he isn’t completely ignoring the pandemic”, he points out. “At the same time, while walking in pubic spaces you see signs, in bus stops, train stations and supermarkets for people to keep some distance from each other and wear masks”.
Peneluppi Jr. reminds us that Lukashenko’s posture differs from that of other leaders on the continet: “Many European countries opted for more flexible social distancing measures, for they have ample public health services or even private ones. In Belarus, it is important to make it clear that there was no relaxing of measures. What we have is a government that discourages social distancing. They are stimulating people to go about their lives and only take care of their hygiene”.
The lawyer says that the Belarus has a free and high quality public health system, another inheritance from the Soviet era. Nevertheless, the coronavirus imposes fresh challenges to the country’s healthcare infrastructure, more so, because of the lack of official social distancing rules.
“At the beginning and the end of April, China sent two flights with humanitarian aid, masks, medical equipment, which helped Belarus face Covid-19”, he recalls. “But the sanitation infrastructure isn’t ready to handle such a high volume of pulmonary patients. There is still the risk that the system might collapse”.
Before the arrival of the chinese equipment, Peneluppi tells us that word was going around that the whole Hrodna region, comprised of around 1 million people only had one available respirator. The government never confirmed these claims nor have they released any official data about the number of respirators available in each of the six regions of the country. Nationally, that number is 2,5 thousand for 9,5 million people.
Proportionate to every 100,000 inhabitants, Belarus has 26 respirators available. Brasil has 31.
Since March, the president of Belarus has been making unfounded claims about Covid-19. First, he assured people that no one would die because of the coronavirus in the country. Confronted with the growing number of fatal cases, Lukashenko said that the deaths were the result of “other disabilities” in the patients’ bodies, like cardiac disease and diabetes.
Instead of isolation, he recommended that citizens drink vodka and frequent saunas to keep the disease at bay.
After competing in an ice hockey game in front of a packed arena, amid the pandemic, Lukashenko was ironic when speaking to the press: “Are you guys seeing the virus flying around in here? There you have it, me neither”.
On their own
Activists and Belorussian opposition leaders organized between March 23rd and April 30th, the “People’s Quarantine” campaign. The idea was to reduce traffic and physical contact, to avoid the spread of the virus.
Research shows that the number of passengers on the Minsk subway fell 25% over the period. Restaurants revenues went down 80% and the sale of non food items 20%.
José Renato Peneluppi Jr. tells us that urban workers, public servants, teachers, small and medium businesses and state employees remain exposed to the virus, since they don’t have the option of going against the Belorussian government.
The self-employed, micro entrepreneurs, seasonal laborers, students, rural workers and the retired are less vulnerable to Covid-19, the Brazilian immigrant thinks. Many of them have opted to isolate in their dachas, countryside homes built during the Soviet Union.
These dachas are not luxurious nor a privilege of the wealthy. They are the remains of Soviet communes, when each piece of land was left to the care of a family”, he explains.
In stores and busy areas the lawyer says that there is usually hand sanitizer and plastic gloves available. “The people are organizing on their own. They have strong ties to neighboring countries, Russia, Lithuania and Poland, people understand the risks because they hear messages from outside, from Putin – who has a big presence here – and other foreign leaders”, details Peneluppi.
Next week, the first policies meant to help Belorussian businesses and citizens who have been affected by Covid-19 will go into effect.
The minimum period for informing shift changes has been lowered – with no changes to salaries. Childcare workers who are suspected of having the coronavirus will receive a monthly stipend, and vendors who are unable to fulfill their contracts will not be penalized as long as they can prove it is due to the pandemic. Beyond that, low income renters will be able to defer payments for up to two months.
The government of Belarus has also reduced the number of flights into the country and extended resident visas for foreigners amid the pandemic.