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'Psychosis'? Lukashenka Shrugs, Opponents Are Appalled By Lack Of COVID-19 Measures In Belarus

People on the streets of Minsk on March 23: Belarus looks like an island of inaction in the middle of a nervous -- in some cases overwhelmed -- European continent.

In the global struggle against the coronavirus, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka stands out, not for what he has done but for what he hasn't.

As quarantines and other restrictive measures are announced almost daily elsewhere in Europe, the authoritarian leader who has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter-century has taken a different approach. It's one that critics, who accuse him of dangerously downplaying the risks ahead of a presidential election in August, say is no approach at all.

Suggesting that the world is panicking unnecessarily, he has shunned most of the measures taken by neighboring European Union countries and many nations further away. As a result, Belarus looks like an island of inaction in the middle of a nervous -- and in some cases overwhelmed --continent.

Analysts say Lukashenka is playing something of a double game, however, with testing for the virus in place even as he laughs it off in public.

Lukashenka has told Belarusians to take to the fields and drive tractors to fend off the virus and has told his government the pandemic is nothing more than a "psychosis."

As usual in the tightly controlled country of nearly 10 million, which some Western critics have dubbed Europe's last dictatorship due to what opponents and activists say is decades of undemocratic rule, it's clear that the government has gotten the message.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka: "I call this coronavirus nothing more than a psychosis."
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka: "I call this coronavirus nothing more than a psychosis."

The Belarusian Education Ministry ignored a petition signed by more than 17,000 people to shut down universities. Another appeal, signed by opposition leaders and their supporters, urged a wide-scale quarantine and called it a "crime" to keep schools open.

Soccer Fields And Farmer's Fields

The country's top soccer league is the only one in Europe still playing. A Belarusian soccer star told British media outlets that nobody cares about the coronavirus in Belarus.

With opponents sidelined by years of clampdowns, the media largely under state control, and concerns about Moscow's intentions increasing unity in Belarus, Lukashenka, 65, is likely to have little trouble winning a new term in the August election. But he may be wary of looking weak in the face of a medical crisis he can't control, observers said.

"Openly admitting the pandemic, Lukashenka could gain more support, but as a classic autocrat, he thinks that he has no right not to have the crisis under control," said Alesia Rudnik, a Belarusian journalist and analyst based in Sweden.

On March 19, Lukashenka convened a meeting to discuss the coronavirus situation in Belarus with government officials and top medical experts.

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The fact the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified the coronavirus as a pandemic "means absolutely nothing" for Belarus, Lukashenka told the gathering.

"I call this coronavirus nothing more than a psychosis," Lukashenka was quoted as saying by the main state news agency, BelTA.

No Distance Learning

"And I will not be persuaded otherwise because I have already lived through many such psychoses with you, and we know how they ended," he said, without explanation.

Lukashenka said that giving in to "psychosis" and panicking would do more harm to Belarus than the coronavirus itself, adding: "That is what worries me most."

Globally, some 380,000 people had been infected with the new coronavirus as of March 24, and more than 16,000 have died of COVID-19, the illness contracted from the virus. Belarus has registered more than 70 cases and has conducted extensive testing, but otherwise life goes on much like before.

Averting a panic was the message from Lukashenka at a government meeting on March 16, parts of which were broadcast on state TV.

"You just have to work, especially now, in a village," Lukashenka said as Belarus prepares to sow crops. "It's nice watching television: People are working on tractors, no one is talking about the virus…. There, the tractor will heal everyone. The fields heal everyone."

On March 17, the Education Ministry declined to move studies online. Responding on its Telegram account to a petition urging such action, which was signed by more than 16,000 people, the ministry urged Belarusians not to "escalate" the situation.

With soccer leagues and other sports competitions around Europe and the world being canceled or postponed over COVID-19 concerns, Belarus is now the only country in Europe where professional top-flight games are still being played.

Former Arsenal and Barcelona star Alexander Hleb said "no one cares" about the coronavirus in his homeland.

Former footballer Alexander Hleb: "No one cares" about the coronavirus in Belarus.
Former footballer Alexander Hleb: "No one cares" about the coronavirus in Belarus.

Lukashenka's opponents argue that if nobody cares it's because they aren't informed, laying blame at the feet of Lukashenka's government.

"The authorities are, as usual, battling against the people, and not with the pandemic," reads a Facebook statement from Paval Sevyarynets, co-chairman of the opposition Belarusian Christian Democracy party.

The statement, supported by opposition members including prominent politician Mikalay Statkevich, called for an immediate quarantine and the closing of schools and universities.

"The authorities are doing everything in their power to let the outbreak of coronavirus in Belarus get out of control," it said.

Testing, Testing

The Health Ministry has defended its handling of the coronavirus crisis. On March 21, it said that 76 cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed in Belarus, with 15 recovered and 61 receiving hospital care. It has reported no deaths.

Since January 23, the ministry said, some 20,000 coronavirus tests have been administered in Belarus. The WHO said the measures Belarus was taken to combat the virus were "timely" and "well-founded."

The WHO branch in Minsk on March 17 praised the country's health-care system for concentrating efforts and resources on early detection and isolation of COVID-19 cases.

"These are key measures recommended by the WHO for stopping the transmission of and preventing the spread of the coronavirus infection," it said.

According to Rudnik, Lukashenka is opting for a dual strategy.

"As in any crisis situation, authoritarian regimes opt for hiding the real picture from a broad audience but acting behind the curtains. This can probably explain a large number of conducted tests," the analyst said.

She argued that by publicly minimizing the magnitude of the coronavirus challenge, Lukashenka is probably undermining his own support – but that unless Belarus ends up being hit hard by COVID-19, it is unlikely to affect the outcome of the upcoming presidential election.

"For being dishonest in addressing the coronavirus situation in Belarus, he will lose trust even among the prior loyal electorate, but this will not have any reflection on the election result in August 2020."

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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.

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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.