Saturday

6th Jun 2020

Coronavirus

Coronavirus in Belarus: could Lukashenko's grip be shaken?

  • President of Belarus, Alexander Loukachenko, is ignoring the country's coronavirus outbreak and its victims. (Photo: kremlin.ru)

When Alexander Loban flew back to Belarus at the end of March from the Netherlands, where he worked as an optometrist for years, he immediately put himself in self-isolation.

From his living room in Grodno, the Belarusian ophthalmologist by formation started a YouTube channel where he called the authorities of Belarus to close the borders and impose containment. Since then he's released a daily video on Covid-19 in the country.

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Faithful viewers could have however noticed a hiatus of seven days. That is because Dr. Loban had been put into quarantine in a local hospital after a woman doctor escorted by a policeman came to knock on his door.

Dr. Loban had no Covid-19 symptoms but she found his throat to be reddish and his temperature (37.1°), to be too high. The doctor was consequently taken to the hospital.

His two Covid-19 tests came back negative. "I have no doubt the authorities are behind it. For a week, I was isolated and I couldn't record any YouTube video".

Even if Dr. Loban is a bit afraid of potential retaliations as he criticises the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko, he decided to speak up "to be able to look himself in the mirror".

Others doctors have been vocal on social media too including on the lack of medical protective equipment. One of them, Nataliya Larionova was summoned to the prosecutor's office two days after she had denounced the official statistics as "mythical" on Vk.com.

Indeed, the novel coronavirus has been spreading actively in Belarus since it entered the country by the end of February. 2,919 people were officially reported positive and 29 had died by April 9th with major outbreaks in Minsk and Vitebsk.

The official numbers are nonetheless not reflecting the reality warns Dr. Loban: "A few days ago the number of people infected by the coronavirus started to seem reasonable. I presume it has to do with the WHO [World Health Organisation] delegation visiting Belarus. But the death toll is diminished.

I know from my colleagues that under pressure a certain number of deaths are requalified in pneumonia even when Covid19 tests are positive".

The doctor can't help to draw a parallel with the Chernobyl disaster he experienced as a medical student back in 1986. "Five days after the explosion, the soviet regime held its massive 1st of May parade. Now, we are in the middle of an pandemic and Lukashenko wants to celebrate the 9th of May," he said.

The President, who's been in power for 25 years has not only pretended to ignore the coronavirus, he's also been dismissing the victims. "There are no virus here".

"Sport especially on ice is better than any antiviral medication," he said two weeks ago, at a crowed hockey arena in Minsk. He has also called his fellow citizens to prevent this "psychosis" with vodka, tractors as well as banya, a traditional spa.

More recently, in his office, on 9 April, he repeated the importance of preserving the economy: "All this will go away, it's already disappearing look at what is happening in Europe. But the economy will remain".

Thus no official containment measure has been introduced in Belarus: the factories are still working, pubs and restaurants are not forced to close, but, in the "shadow", hospitals have been reorganised to be able to attend to Covid-19 patients and Easter holidays was prolonged for two weeks for school children.

"Lukashenko now acknowledges there is a problem but at the same times he goes on with conspiracy theories" analyses Aleś Łahviniec, a dissident who teaches political science at the European Humanities University, a Belarusian university in exile in Vilnius.

Belarusians, who in large part are well informed reading independent online outlets and social media, have started to implement social distancing across the country.

In Minsk, the metro feels empty, hand sanitisers are everywhere and a lot of restaurants are closed. In Vitebsk, too. There Yuri (name changed upon his request) only leaves home for shopping, keeping a 1.5 metre distance from other customers. His wife has been working online for 2 weeks.

"What Lukashenko says is absurd. But his position in ambiguous, it's a fertile ground for fake news and older people may not understand the situation. In fact, you can still see a lot of them on the street with no mask when almost everyone else has one", he said.

Showcasing the blatant lies of the regime, the coronavirus crisis could be a serious crack in Lukashenko's regime, only four months ahead of the next presidential elections. "But it would come at a high human cost" points out the doctor.

"You would need a strong mobilisation of the population, a fragmented establishment as well as a more threatening Russia" adds Aleś Łahviniec.

If none of that happens, obedient electoral commissions and a few other tricks will provide for Lukashenko's next landslide victory.

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