MINSK – When Belarus' president last made a public appearance he wore protective gear, but it wasn't for the coronavirus. Alexander Lukashenko, who derides global concerns over COVID-19 as “mass psychosis,” donned a helmet and knee guards to play ice hockey — at a venue packed with spectators.
“There are no viruses here. Did you see any flying around? I don’t see them either,” Lukashenko, an avid player of the sport, told a TV reporter while on the ice at the weekend event. “It's better to die standing than to live on your knees.”
While Belarus’ neighbors impose increasing restrictions on public life to halt the virus’ spread, and its main ally and sponsor, Russia, has closed the border, the former Soviet republic is facing the global crisis with a blend of bravado and casual disregard. Factories, stores and restaurants conduct business as usual, stands at sports events fill with spectators and masks are a rare sight on the streets of the capital, Minsk.
Belarus is the only country in Europe still playing professional soccer games with fans in the stands.
The health ministry rejects the idea of restrictions and quarantine; it considers wide-spread testing, treating severe cases of the virus and monitoring those who came in contact with infected people much more effective.
With some 36,000 — out of 9.5-million population — tested, 1,500 people closely monitored and more ventilators per 100,000 people than the U.S. and Italy, the situation is “under control,” Belarus health officials say.
Lukashenko, a 65-year-old former state farm director, has run the country as a near-dictatorship for a quarter-century, cultivating a tough-guy image and tolerating no dissent. The national coronavirus strategy reflects that.
“Lukashenko treats the coronavirus as a subordinate,” said Tatyana Bykovich, a 46-year-old economist who was one of the few people walking around Minsk in a mask.
But the virus isn’t submissive. In recent days, the comparatively low number of officially reported infections has been steadily rising and the first four deaths have been reported. Some Belarusians believe that government statistics underplay the spread to keep the nation's Soviet-style economy running.
“Under the conditions of total (state) control of the mass media and statistics, Belarus has every chance of being the most successful country in the world in the fight against coronavirus,” said analyst Viktor Martinovich.
Nevertheless, many citizens appear to be taking the epidemic much more seriously than their government is.
Medical workers on social media urge people to stay home. Soccer fans vow to stop going to games and have called on the national soccer federation to “draw on some courage and stop the Belarusian championship, as the rest of the world has done.” Reporters demand that the authorities update the nation on the number of coronavirus cases daily and not once every few days like they do now.
“We're supposed to laugh and not take the virus seriously, but with caskets (filling Italy's coronavirus hotspot) Bergamo and all the neighboring countries taking action, the situation in Belarus doesn't look funny,” said 20-year-old student Igor Gubarevich.
The impact that a lockdown would have on the economy seems to worry Lukashenko more than the disease itself. Belarus already has been squeezed by a cut in Russia's energy subsidies amid stalled talks about a deeper integration between the two neighbors. Now the economic damage from the outbreak could sharply exacerbate the situation.
This week Minsk asked the International Monetary Fund for a loan of up to $900 million because of the challenges the country faces as the outbreak continues to grow.
“More people will die from unemployment and hunger than the coronavirus,” Lukashenko said this week, dismissing concerns around the pandemic as “mass psychosis.” He said he hasn't taken any coronavirus tests.