While Europe is in lockdown, Belarus remains open for business
Belarus is still open for business.
Alone among European countries to shrug off the Covid-19 preventative measures that have put economies across the continent into hibernation, the Belarusian government has insisted the country is all but immune to the pandemic, claiming there are a mere 860 cases in a country of nine and a half million.
Since reporting its first cases of coronavirus in early March, President Alexander Lukashenko has only doubled down on his proclamation that “the most dangerous epidemic is panic.” By keeping businesses open and urging the security services — still operating under their Soviet-era name, the KGB — to investigate those spreading false information about the pandemic, Lukashenko has sent a clear message that he intends to keep the country open.
The decision was a gamble by authorities who can’t expect a bailout from the West or international organizations to help its economy which was already in deep recession. “Belarus is a very poor country and it cannot rely on anyone,” said Ryhor Astapenia, a fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House. “They understand that they can’t afford a lockdown.”
Before the coronavirus hit Europe, the Belarusian economy was already in a tailspin from an ongoing conflict over oil prices with Russia and a dramatic fall in exports to China. The Belarusian ruble has been devalued by more than 20%. “From all sides there is what you can call a perfect storm,” said Artyom Shraibman, a political analyst at Sense Analytics, a consultancy group in Minsk.
Even as the number of Covid-19 cases in Belarus began to grow, President Lukashenko called the pandemic a “psychosis.” On March 28, he filled an arena with supporters to watch him play hockey. Lukashenko took a break from the game to assure a journalist that “there are no viruses here” and that hockey is the “best antivirus medicine.”
Although 70% of Belarusians say they support a government ban on public events, virtually no restrictions on public movement or gatherings have been put in place.
“Today we are the only country in Europe where you can legally organize a demonstration,” said Shraibman. “In Belarus — Europe’s last dictatorship!”
In Minsk the streets are noticeably less crowded with many companies, especially those in the country’s thriving IT sector, electing to switch to working remotely. However, with no state-wide quarantine announced many are still obliged to commute, keeping public transportation crowded during rush hour.
All of its neighbors have sealed off their land borders, however Belarus has, officially at least, kept its open. To the north, the president of Lithuania, Gitanas Nauseda, accused Belarus of “assessing the situation with a certain level of bravado,” adding that “the information coming from Minsk about coronavirus cannot be trusted.”
Lithuania, a country with nearly a third of Belarus’ population, has reported 880 cases of Covid-19.
The Belarus deputy minister of health, Elena Bogdan, told reporters that “nothing extraordinary is happening in our country” during a press briefing, causing outrage among the country’s small but vocal independent press.
“It’s practically impossible to verify any information with the Ministry of Health,” said Boris Goretsky of the Belarus Association of Journalists. “The government has taken the position of minimizing all information.”
The health ministry’s strategy for releasing information on Covid-19 varies from week to week, Goretsky says. On some days, the ministry has published statistics amounting to arithmetic riddles, forcing reporters to do their own calculations from nationwide data to get a tally of those infected. On other days, the ministry releases a steady flow of clear information — or the total opposite, when the website simply doesn’t get updated.
Authorities also arrested an independent journalist on March 25 after he raised doubts about the accuracy of the ministry’s Covid-19 statistics. Accused of taking a bribe, journalist Sergei Satsuk was held in custody for 10 days. Following his release on April 4, Satsuk announced he will not publish any further investigations into the Ministry of Health.
At least one Belarusian doctor has spoken out.
“Help save the people of Belarus,” wrote Natalya Laryonova from Hospital Number One in Vitebsk in the north of Belarus. “The situation in our city is starting to get out of control,” Laryonova wrote in a post on her social media profile, adding that many doctors are already being hospitalized with pneumonia. “The numbers being published by the Ministry of Health are a complete myth.”
Laryonova was summoned to the local prosecutor’s office on April 1 where she was questioned about her social media activity and instructed to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
“I don’t regret what I did because it stirred things up here and more help started coming to hospitals,” said Laryonova in between a shift at her hospital. However she says she has deleted some of her online posts to not “escalate the situation.”
With the government announcing a modest $40 million coronavirus stimulus package last week — amounting to just about $5 per person — ordinary Belarusians have stepped in to address shortages in medical supplies. Activists in Minsk brought together over 140 volunteers with 3D printers to create high-tech face masks for doctors, some equipped with anti-bacterial filters. “Doctors do have some of their own weapons against coronavirus but we’re providing them with bullet proof vests,” said Anton Tryfanau, one of the organizers. So far 25 hospitals in Minsk and neighboring regions have signed up to partner.
Additional reporting by Mikalai Anishchanka
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