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'Who Will Do It, If We Don't?' Belarusians Step Up As President Plays Down COVID-19 Threat

A volunteer in the western Belarusian city of Hrodna sews masks and protective equipment to help doctors during the coronavirus pandemic.
A volunteer in the western Belarusian city of Hrodna sews masks and protective equipment to help doctors during the coronavirus pandemic.

HRODNA, Belarus -- New books unveiled, exhibits held, and the Belarusian language taught. In normal times those would be some of the activities and events at the community center in Hrodna, Belarus -- a city close to the Polish border and 280 kilometers west of the capital, Minsk.

Today, however, volunteers, mouths and noses covered with masks, sit in a group on folding chairs, putting together plastic face shields.

It's part of a nationwide volunteer effort to help hospitals and doctors who are struggling to cope with the spread of the coronavirus even as the authoritarian president plays it down, critics say.

At the Hrodna community center, besides the shields, volunteers are sewing protective masks and gowns.

As of May 5, Belarus, with a population of some 9.5 million, has registered nearly 17,500 coronavirus cases and 103 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University -- one of the highest per capita infection rates

Opponents say President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, in power since 1994, is in a state of denial: He had declined to institute measures to restrict movement and mass gatherings, as the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Union, and now the United Nations have urged.

On May 9, Belarus is set to hold a military parade to mark 75 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, while Russia and other countries have scrapped or scaled down such plans in order to safeguard against spreading the virus.

During a government meeting on May 3, Lukashenka said he did not want to cancel the parade because people "would say we were scared."

'Every Bit Helps'

Doctors have complained they are not equipped to handle the crisis, but few dare to speak openly.

The head doctor at a hospital in Vitsebsk, an eastern city near the Russian border that has been hit hard by the coronavirus, was fired on April 30 after he complained of the lack of protective gear there, although the Belarusian health minister denied any link.

In Belarus, where little civic activity outside the gaze of the government is permitted, people have joined the volunteer campaign launched under the hashtag #bycovid19. Face shields, protective masks, plastic gowns, hospital-bed dividers, and sanitary mats have all been turned out here by Belarusians who are doing it for free -- though some have lost their jobs and have little or no income.

"We don't pay anyone, but every bit helps. Even 10 minutes [of volunteered time]," said Vadzim Saranchukou, who coordinates the drive in the Hrodna region, which includes a crowdfunding campaign that has collected more the 4,000 rubles ($1,830).

Volunteers have been supplying health workers with masks, gowns, and other protective equipment that they need.
Volunteers have been supplying health workers with masks, gowns, and other protective equipment that they need.

How many in Hrodna have pitched in is unclear. A Telegram forum dedicated to the effort has more than 600 participants. A separate chat site dedicated to rounding up volunteer drivers counts more than 70.

"Who are these volunteers? Normal people. It's awesome," said one of them, who like others requested anonymity when speaking recently to RFE/RL's Belarus Service, for fear of repercussions.

While those taking part prefer to keep it secret, coordinators say all their activities are out in the open with all funding and purchases documented.

Controversial Dismissal

Hospitals may lack protective supplies in Hrodna, but not all are eager to publicly ask for help.

"There are hospitals where they say they have enough [protective equipment]. There are other places where people ask us to deliver something," said Saranchukou, who is also the head of the Hrodna branch of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front party.

On the other side of the country, Syarhey Lazar, head of the Vitsebsk municipal hospital, was dismissed on April 30, three days after an article he wrote was published by, Belarus's largest online news outlet. In it, he described work conditions inside the so-called "dirty zone," the overtaxed area of the hospital where critical coronavirus patients are treated.

The Belarusian Health Ministry denied Lazar's dismissal was linked to the article.

Medical personnel in Belarus have paid a high price for combating the coronavirus, with hundreds contracting it. On April 17, Health Minister Uladzimer Karanik cited a figure of 419. According to a count by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, at least 12 medical personnel have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, although the number is feared to be much higher.

Svyatlana Pinchuk (left) with other volunteers.
Svyatlana Pinchuk (left) with other volunteers.

In Hrodna, Svyatlana Pinchuk, a fashion designer, is coordinating a volunteer effort to sew protective masks, with women out of work and others with disabilities pitching in.

"If I don't do it, who will? When it's for no pay, there are few who are interested. I'd be ashamed if I was sitting on a couch watching TV at such a time," said Pinchuk.

Yana Litvinchuk is also sewing, but not masks. She has taken foam rubber and stitched scraps together to create floor mats as a makeshift disinfectant device for hospitals.

'If Doctors Die, Who'll Treat Us?'

"Helping is always good. The more, the better. If volunteers can do some of the work: simple stuff like sewing masks or contributing 20 [Belarusian] rubles ($8), why not do it? Doctors should feel that support, that we value their work. If we don't help one another what will become of us?" Litvinchuk said.

That message is echoed by Ezha Hrihencha, who assembles plastic face shields and builds hospital bed dividers.

"And who will do it, if we don't? If doctors die, who is going to treat us? I have a little free time. The more I do, the more it can help. I'm not saying I'm the best."

Volunteers in Hrodna have been helping out medics and health-care facilities any way they can.
Volunteers in Hrodna have been helping out medics and health-care facilities any way they can.

Volunteers have also created and printed posters with practical information on keeping healthy and avoiding the coronavirus.

Shop owner Syarhey Verameyenka, also a member of the opposition Belarusian Christian Democracy party, said there was no question about whether to take part.

"Why does man exist? Why does he breathe? Why support your homeland, country, and family? Because there's no other way. It's also a question of the independence of our country because there is a real threat for the very existence of Belarusians," Verameyenka said.

A Hrodna-based car-sales website also chipped in, launching a crowdfunding campaign that raised some 5,000 rubles (some $2,000) in two weeks to help paramedics and ambulance units in the Hrodna region.

"We realized that if we have this popular resource, then we have no moral right not to join in fundraising to help doctors. It would almost be a crime not to exploit this opportunity," explained Mikhal Kuntsevich, editor of the Auto Hrodna website.

Whether the efforts are helping curb Belarus's infection rate is hard to determine. The UN Resident Coordinator in Belarus Joanna Kazana-Wisniowiecki on April 28 issued a fresh appeal for the government to institute social-distancing measures, stressing that Belarus's infection rate was now rising "exponentially,” and noting that on March 26 the country had just 86 cases.

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    RFE/RL's Belarus Service

    RFE/RL's Belarus Service is one of the leading providers of news and analysis to Belarusian audiences in their own language. It is a bulwark against pervasive Russian propaganda and defies the government’s virtual monopoly on domestic broadcast media.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.