In Belarus, Lukashenko bets on no coronavirus lockdown

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Belarus is one of the only European countries not to have strict coronavirus containment measures in place. Its daily rate of new cases is now among the highest in Europe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The country has performed its fair share of diagnostic tests, more than 240,000, or about 2.5% of its citizens. Belarus has officially confirmed 21,101 cases and 121 deaths as of May 8.

But medical professionals suggest Belarus’s death toll has been intentionally underreported, with independent media and social media users reporting that hospitals are under pressure to register COVID-19 deaths as pneumonia cases or heart failure. “The Ministry of Health is hiding the real number of cases and especially the real number of deaths,” said Alexander Loban, ophthalmologist. “In addition, the ministry does not want to cross the psychological threshold of 1,000 new cases per day.

The Belarusian regime is not known for its transparency. In power for 25 years, President Alexander Lukashenko rules the country with an iron fist and oversees a repressive state apparatus. In recent months, he has played down the dangers of the coronavirus, calling it “psychosis.” On April 21, Lukashenko attributed the deaths in the Mogilev region, south of the capital Minsk, to chronic diseases rather than COVID-19. The president continued to play hockey on an amateur team in the midst of the crisis. In March, he calls out to a journalist in a crowded arena: “There is no virus here. Did you see any of them fly? (A player from Lukashenko’s team then tested positive.)

Belarus is one of the only European countries not to have strict coronavirus containment measures in place. Its daily rate of new cases is now among the highest in Europe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The country has performed its fair share of diagnostic tests, more than 240,000, or about 2.5% of its citizens. Belarus has officially confirmed 21,101 cases and 121 deaths as of May 8.


But medical professionals suggest Belarus’s death toll has been intentionally underreported, with independent media and social media users reporting that hospitals are under pressure to register COVID-19 deaths as pneumonia cases or heart failure. “The Ministry of Health is hiding the real number of cases and especially the real number of deaths,” said Alexander Loban, ophthalmologist. “In addition, the ministry does not want to cross the psychological threshold of 1,000 new cases per day.

The Belarusian regime is not known for its transparency. In power for 25 years, President Alexander Lukashenko rules the country with an iron fist and oversees a repressive state apparatus. In recent months, he has played down the dangers of the coronavirus, calling it “psychosis.” On April 21, Lukashenko attributed the deaths in the Mogilev region, south of the capital Minsk, to chronic diseases rather than COVID-19. The president continued to play hockey on an amateur team in the midst of the crisis. In March, he calls out to a journalist in a crowded arena: “There is no virus here. Did you see any of them fly? (A player from Lukashenko’s team then tested positive.)

“Don’t panic” policymaking and Lukashenko’s absolute power are an insidious combination. Belarus almost equals Germany in the number of intensive care unit beds per capita. With its obedient citizens and expansive free public health system, it could have been a role model to flatten the curve. So why does Lukashenko continue to downplay the coronavirus?

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

The president wants to project himself in control and demonstrate that the coronavirus must not interrupt the lives of Belarusians, nor the country’s fragile economy. He is also campaigning for his re-election, scheduled for August 9, a plan that ignored the coronavirus. “Lukashenko wants to show that he is a strong man, and it is difficult for him to admit that he was wrong,” said Andrei Yeliseyeu, research director of the EAST Center, a think tank focused on Europe in the ‘East and post-Soviet countries. By denying the threat of the virus, he “moves forward with a story that other officials must follow.”

So even though the coronavirus may soon reach its peak in Belarus, commemorations of the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender in World War II on May 9 have been kept on the national agenda. The official stubbornness echoes the May Day parade organized by Soviet authorities in Belarus in 1986, in total denial of the Chernobyl explosion five days earlier.

But with 80% of Belarusian population now online, it’s hard to hide the pandemic. The response from the Department of Health was very different from that of the President. The ministry reports on the situation daily, although its own messages have been overshadowed by Lukashenko’s televised statements. “The Ministry of Health is working hard to ensure that stricter measures to contain the epidemic are taken,” said Yuri Tsarik, head of studies on Russia at the Center for Strategic Studies and Foreign Policy, in a statement. E-mail. But Lukashenko “severely limited the powers of the ministry supposed to” treat patients “instead of promoting a lockdown,” he wrote.

Some authorities, out of step with Lukashenko, have taken precautions. The Belarusian national rail service has rearranged passenger seats to allow social distancing. The health ministry discouraged people from attending mass, although Lukashenko himself attended an Orthodox Easter mass on April 19.

Knowing that Lukashenko would not act to slow the spread of the coronavirus, members of the public did not wait to adopt their own proactive containment measures. The private sector has largely turned to remote work. Fewer people are on the streets or on public transport, and those who venture out wear face masks. Some bars and restaurants have closed on their own. Unfortunately, seniors at risk are most likely to watch state television channels, which broadcast misleading or contradictory messages about the coronavirus and how to contain it.

The response of Belarusian civil society organizations was applauded by the Ministry of Health and WHO. “Of course the spread of the coronavirus depends on the authorities, but it depends a lot on all of us,” said Andrej Stryzhak, volunteer for # ByCovid19, a grassroots support group that has raised over $ 210,000 for personal protective equipment. for health. caregivers across the country. It shared its industry-wide needs database with the Ministry of Health.

Having subdued the Belarusian opposition for years, Lukashenko is certain of another landslide victory in this year’s elections. No election organized since 1996 has been free or fair. While he may not be accountable to his public, he is still dependent on his neighbor, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Belarus has long relied on Russian energy subsidies to support its struggling economy. But Russia’s invasion of their common neighbor Ukraine in 2014 prompted Lukashenko to rethink that dependency, and he began to make overtures to the West. To tighten the screws on Minsk – an important buffer between Russia and Europe – Moscow is seeking to dust off a 20-year-old “state-union” treaty signed by the two countries which would see them form a supranational union, undermining the sovereignty of Belarus.

“A potentially serious epidemiological situation on the eve of the elections would pose a great risk to the political and internal situation,” Yeliseyeu said. “If Russia manages the epidemic more effectively, the Kremlin could also try to play this card to advance its project of” integration “with Belarus. “

Lukashenko is also decreasing the threat of the coronavirus to protect the precarious Belarusian economy, which is heavily dependent on Russian markets. Without a complete lockdown, the economy faces a crisis: it has suffered from a dispute with Russia over crude oil, which Belarus was importing at a subsidized rate to refine it and sell it on the European market. The value of the Belarusian ruble plunged as oil prices collapsed, increasing the difficulties.

Belarus already has extremely low unemployment benefits – less than $ 23 a month. “A proper lockdown would mean thousands of people would lose their wages,” said Lev Lvovskiy, senior researcher at BEROC, a Belarusian think tank. And Belarus does not have state emergency funds to support the unemployed, which means that in the event of containment there would be little additional financial assistance.

Lukashenko therefore insists that the economy must function without interruption. “We are in a more complicated situation than Russia,” he said on April 17. “They are on vacation, but their pipelines continue to operate. Even though the price [of oil] has fallen, the foreign currency continues to enter the country. We don’t have such a safety net. And due to its bad credit rating, Belarus cannot access international loans at a preferential rate. “Other post-Soviet countries usually have emergency savings, like Kazakhstan or Russia, or some can borrow at a better rate, like Ukraine,” Lvovskiy said.

But increasing social distancing measures before a lockdown is unlikely to have any other negative effect on the economy. And Belarus could still decide to implement them as the coronavirus crisis worsens. “The authorities are just wasting time,” Yeliseyeu said. “They will have to agree to action later anyway as the situation worsens.”

An online poll conducted in Belarus between March 20 and April 5 showed that 86% of those polled disapproved of Lukashenko’s response to the coronavirus. But discontent alone will not change the nature of his regime. The president’s iron grip has not been relaxed since 1994, and there are no opposition representatives in the National Assembly. While the awakening of Belarusian civil society is remarkable, it risks fading away again when the coronavirus epidemic slows down. “It’s like in natural disasters, we work on adrenaline. Then everything is in danger of disappearing, ”Stryzhak said.

It appears that the political structure built by Lukashenko will resist growing discontent, but it could face great pressure if the death toll is devastating and cracks appear in the establishment. Putin, who has silently waged an economic war on Lukashenko, is also looming – and he could step in if the coronavirus weakens Belarus further.

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