MINSK -- It's been a common sight in recent weeks: People line up patiently outside a medical clinic in the Belarusian capital, waiting to get their COVID-19 vaccines. So far, not many have: As of June 25, fewer than 4 percent of the people in this nation of more than 9 million had been fully vaccinated.
Belarus has been hit hard by the pandemic, which Alyaksandr Lukashenka dismissed as a "mass psychosis" that could be treated with a shot of vodka, a ride on a tractor, or a visit to a sauna, among other false information dispensed by the authoritarian ruler who has been in power since 1994.
With no lockdown measures, Belarus witnessed high coronavirus infection rates as the pandemic took hold, and now it has vaccinated fewer of its citizens than most other countries on the European continent.
And as doctors scramble to contain the virus at often ill-equipped hospitals, many have found themselves in the crosshairs of Lukashenka's political clampdown.
Belarus was thrown into turmoil in August 2020 when Lukashenka, 66, was declared victor of a presidential election that millions believe was fixed in his favor. Since then, more than 33,000 people have been detained, thousands beaten on the streets and in detention, some alleging torture, while several have been killed and opposition leaders have been locked up or forced to flee.
Belarusian health workers who have participated in the anti-government demonstrations that erupted after the election or have spoken out against official accounts of protesters' deaths and injuries, are facing brutal reprisals from the authorities, rights watchdog Amnesty International said on June 17.
According to data collated by Johns Hopkins University in the United States, Belarus had more than 413,000 confirmed coronavirus cases as of June 25, with 3,082 deaths, although experts fear the figures could be even higher amid suspicions that the government is downplaying the scope of the pandemic.
While infection numbers are high, inoculation rates are low. Belarus has fully vaccinated only 3.9 percent of the population. according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins.
By comparison, in Russia, which is suffering a surge of infections as the government struggles to persuade citizens to get vaccinated almost a year after it approved a Russian-made vaccine, Sputnik V, about 11 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. In the United States, it is over 46 percent, and in France, over 27 percent.
In Belarus, Sputnik Light, a single-dose version of Sputnik V that was approved by Russian regulators on May 6, is now one of two available vaccines.
The other is Vero Cell, developed by China's state-owned drug maker Sinopharm, which was approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 7, the first non-Western vaccine to win WHO backing.
Sputnik Light, which is also produced in Belarus, is much more widespread than Vero Cell.
With the vaccine campaign only really kicking off in April, doctors say they are scrambling to even catch up with Russia, a doctor told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.
"In Russia, doctors, people at risk, began being vaccinated at the beginning of December 2020, and mass vaccinations in Russia officially began on January 18, 2021," said the doctor, who requested anonymity for fear of official reprisals. "And in Belarus, the first batch of doctors was vaccinated only on January 19. Things went slowly."
The doctor said that the downplaying of the COVID-19 pandemic by Lukashenka and state-run media, as well as scaremongering involving unfounded claims of risks linked to Western vaccines, have led to public apathy and suspicion.
"A lot of damage was done here by official propaganda," he said. "They did not recognize the danger of the disease, did not see the virus, then deliberately underestimated the statistics, then the state channels inflated the rage around foreign vaccines, told the horrors of the consequences of Moderna and AstraZeneca."
In the early days of the pandemic last year, Lukashenka refused to acknowledge even one victim in the country of some 9.5 million. He demanded Belarus hold a military parade to mark 75 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, while Russia and other countries scrapped or scaled down such plans in order to safeguard against spreading the virus.
With the government doing little, Belarusians themselves came forward to assemble plastic shields, or sew protective masks and gowns.
By July, Lukashenka said he had tested positive for the coronavirus but had suffered no symptoms and had overcome it without being hospitalized, which he falsely claimed was the outcome for "97 percent" of Belarusians who became infected.
'People Are Dying'
Now, doctors in Belarus find themselves contending with the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccination drive amid the Lukashenka government's ongoing clampdown.
"Belarusian health workers have been on the front line of the country's human rights crisis, treating protesters with injuries and exposing the government's attempts to downplay the bloodshed. Many have paid a heavy price for their integrity, losing their livelihoods, and in some cases their human rights," said Bruce Millar, Amnesty International's deputy director of the watchdog's Campaigns for Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Office, upon the release of its most recent report.
'The health-care situation in Belarus, especially in provincial areas, is catastrophic. People are dying because they do not receive even the most basic care," a doctor identified only as Kanstantsin told Amnesty International. "During the worst times of the COVID-19 pandemic doctors worked nonstop and received no recognition. Instead, the government fires dissenting doctors and nurses and threatens many others."
At a clinic in Minsk, a doctor said medical personnel have struggled to assure people the vaccines are safe.
"We even thought up little sayings to convince them like: 'It's not some beer or gasoline that's sold everywhere by unscrupulous sellers, but a vaccine, which is produced with oversight after being tested,'" said the doctor, who also requested anonymity.
Outside, in the line of people waiting for shots, a young woman lamented that people in Belarus aren't being given a wider range of vaccines, especially those approved by the European Union.
"We were promised that there would be vaccines from different manufacturers and that we could choose," she told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, also fearing reprisals.
"I waited and waited, but now it's clear that won't happen. Not that I don't trust the Russian vaccine. I think it is mostly a political issue that it is not approved by the European Union," she said, adding that upcoming vacation plans also prompted her to act.
A young man, also waiting in line for the Sputnik Lite shot, said that he too would have preferred a different vaccine but realized that his options were limited.
"Of course, I would have wanted to get vaccinated with Pfizer, but where can I get that here?"