May 11, 2020 - World

Belarusians defend themselves from COVID-19 as the president ignores it

Marching to a different tune, on Victory Day in Minsk. Photo: Natalia Fedosenko/TASS via Getty

Belarus is now grappling with one of Europe's highest per capita coronavirus infection rates, even as President Alexander Lukashenko plays down the danger.

The big picture: Belarus, a country of about 9.5 million people where most live in urban centers, has been run by Lukashenko since 1994. He says a lockdown would be ineffective, unjustified and bad for business and society.

  • Cafes and bars are still open, the football league is going ahead and on April 25, around 25 percent of the population took part in a "community work day," including the president himself. An August 9 presidential election looks set to be held.
  • In March, Lukashenko said: "People should not only wash their hands with vodka but also poison the virus with it."
  • Lukashenko rejected calls to cancel a military parade on Sunday celebrating the 75th anniversary of victory in World War II.

Fearing a worse outbreak and with poor expectations of the authorities, many Belarusians are taking it upon themselves to try and contain the virus and help others.

  • Most of Nadia Lyudchik's time is now spent coordinating hundreds of volunteers to ensure that masks and other safety equipment get delivered to hospitals and health workers across the country.
  • She is part of an informal structure called ByCovid-19 created at the end of March and is constantly switching between apps from Telegram to Hangout, from Facebook to Trello, to keep in touch with regional groups and respond to requests.
  • "Belarusians tend to be passive. I had never seen such a coordinating effort around one goal in Belarus, it's impressive," she said in a phone interview.

What to watch: "I'm afraid the situation in Belarus could look like Italy," said Alexey, a psychologist based in Minsk. "As long as there won't be any lockdown, people will have to go to work. Otherwise, they can be fired."

Go deeper: Read the full report on Al Jazeera

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