Belarusian authorities have abolished mask mandates less than two weeks after they were introduced and a day after the country registered a record number of new coronavirus infections.
The decision came after authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka dismissed the mask mandates and other measures to control the spread of COVID-19 as unnecessary.
The mask mandates were introduced earlier this month amid a new wave of infections and required Belarusians to wear medical masks in all indoor public areas, including public transport and stores.
Doctors who have been treating COVID-19 patients were shocked by the decision, especially after the country on October 21 reported 2,097 new confirmed daily infections, the highest number so far.
Dr. Mikita Salavey, a leading Belarusian infectious disease expert in Minsk, sharply criticized the decision, describing it as "madness" amid soaring infections.
"Clinics and hospitals in all regions of the country have been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and suffered shortages of oxygen and medicines," he wrote on Facebook.
Lukashenka dismissed concern over the coronavirus as "psychosis" when the pandemic began and refused to impose any restrictions.
His attitude angered many Belarusians and contributed to their outrage over the presidential election in August 2020 that handed Lukashenka a sixth term -- an outcome the Belarusian opposition and the West have refused to accept.
In announcing the end of the mask mandates, Lukashenka said: "This is the advantage of a dictatorship -- whoosh, and a wrong decision is no longer valid."
Opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who moved to Lithuania after the 2020 election fearing for the safety of her family, said people in Belarus don’t believe the government or official statistics.
"Belarus faces the worst wave of the coronavirus, and it’s not ready for that," Tsikhanouskaya said during an online conference.
Countries across Eastern Europe have experienced a surge of infections in recent weeks, prompting authorities in the region to announce a raft of restrictions.
Russia has set several daily records for coronavirus infections and deaths in recent days, prompting President Vladimir Putin to order a nationwide week of "nonworking" starting on October 30.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin reintroduced lockdown measures from October 28 through November 7 -- with all shops, bars, and restaurants due to close, except those selling essential goods.
In Ukraine, government data on October 22 showed a record 614 new COVID-19 deaths in the past 24 hours, up from 546 the day before. Schools were shut in high-infection areas the same day, including the capital Kyiv, where a two-week holiday was announced.
Latvia has begun a monthlong lockdown as the number of new coronavirus cases reached an all-time high in the country, while hospitals in Bulgaria and Romania feel the strain of a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Elsewhere in the world, U.S. federal health regulators said that kid-size doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer/BioNTech appear highly effective at preventing symptomatic infections in children aged 5 to 11 and caused no unexpected safety issues.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) posted its analysis of data provided by the company ahead of a public meeting next week to debate whether the shots are ready to be approved for U.S. children in the 5- to 11-year age range.
The review affirmed results showing the two-dose shot is nearly 91 percent effective at preventing symptomatic infection in young children.
The agency will put the question of whether the vaccine should be authorized to its panel of independent advisers on October 26 and weigh their advice before making its decision.
Parents are awaiting protection for younger children to stem infections from the delta variant and help keep kids in school.