INTRODUCTION: PARADOX OF THE BELARUSIAN APPROACH
As of May 1, 2020, and in contrast to other investigated countries in this report (China, Russia, Hungary, Iran), Belarus hasn’t experienced either a peak of the COVID-19 epidemic or even approached it. Although Belarusian authorities have managed to contain the spread of the epidemic at the first stage without introduction of a nation-wide quarantine effort, the worst consequences are yet to come since the peak of the epidemic is expected in the beginning of June. It will be a real vitality test for the Belarusian authorities and President Alexander Lukashenka himself amid the presidential election campaign which has already started. However unpopular within the Belarusian society, the inconsistent response strategy of fighting against COVID-19 risks the epidemiological situation will develop according to the worst case scenario in Belarus, with all concomitant implications to the political stability and legitimacy of current political leadership.
Almost all European countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic have been trying to combat its spread through more or less severe quarantine measures and social distancing regimes. But there are two countries that refused to impose quarantine and chose a very different way of fighting the infection: these are Belarus and Sweden. Belarusian authorities often claim similarity between the “unique paths” of both countries in responding to the pandemic. Although there are more differences than similarities between the two approaches, the real paradox of the Belarus case is the conflict between official narratives and practical responses to COVID-19 on the ground.
On the one hand, on the rhetorical level the Belarusian leadership simply denies the gravity of the epidemic. On the other—the national healthcare system was involved in tackling the problem from the very beginning, when COVID-19 arrived in Belarus, despite controversial statements. However, occasionally effective anti-epidemic measures were devalued by shocking decisions like the refusal to postpone the national football and hockey championships or holding a nation-wide Subbotnik1 on April 25 and an army parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Soviet people’s victory in the Great Patriotic War of 19 1-1945 on May 9. At the same time, President Alexander Lukashenka postponed his annual address to the Belarusian parliament in April and mass rallies on Labor Day on May 1 were canceled.
Another paradox is the controversial public perception of the Belarusian authorities’ COVID-19 response strategy. Although majority of Belarusians considered the authorities’ reaction to the coronavirus pandemic to be insufficient from an epidemiological point of view, they didn’t advocate a total lockdown. It can be explained by the fact that Belarusian society hadn’t yet experienced all the dramatic epidemiological consequences, but already faced negative global economic implications from the coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, the strategy of the Belarusian authorities regarding the COVID-19 epidemic has undergone significant changes, primarily under the influence of the development of the epidemic itself, reaction of civil society and surrounding countries to it, as well as the forthcoming presidential elections planned on August 9 this year. A strategic task for Belarusian authorities in this regard can be described as containing negative consequences of the “coronacrisis” in different dimensions—preventing panic within society, collapse of the national economy and escalation of the epidemic. Although, initially the national healthcare system was well prepared to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic at the first stages underestimation of the gravity of problem and inconsistency in actions has allowed the situation develop out of control and provoke a serious crisis of legitimacy.
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 infection was recorded in Belarus on February 28, 2020. A student from Iran tested positive on February 27 and was admitted to a hospital in Minsk. The individual arrived in Belarus via a flight from Baku, Azerbaijan, on 22 February. On March 13, twenty-seven cases were confirmed in Hrodna, Homiel, Viciebsk, Minsk Regions, and Minsk city—five of seven main territorial-administrative units of Belarus.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka’s initial position regarding the possibility of a COVID-19 epidemic in Belarus was dismissive and anti-alarmist. His personal medical advice in which he recommended working in fields and driving tractors, drinking vodka and attending the sauna (banya) or playing ice hockey as the best ways of overcoming the epidemic immediately became the subject of different satiric reports by world media outlets. The president even continued to play ice hockey on an amateur team. During the break in one of the hockey matches, he commented on the fact that his work and sport schedule was not affected by the coronavirus epidemic and declared “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” He also challenged a journalist saying, “There are no viruses here. Did you see any of them flying around?”
AUTHORITIES’ FIRST REACTION AND CHANGING ATTITUDE: BEHIND THE PACE OF EVENTS
In practice since the second week of March President Lukashenka was receiving daily reports from different ministers about the epidemiological situation in the country. Although, throughout March the authorities’ stance on the COVID-19 epidemic was changing, it remained behind the pace of events.
On March 12, during a meeting with the Minister of Health, President Lukashenka praised the national healthcare system and spoke against exaggerating the scale of the epidemic.8 One week later, the Belarusian president held a meeting on the epidemiological situation in the country with the Head of the Belarus President Administration, Ihar Sierhiajenka, the State Secretary of the Security Council, Andrej Raukou, and the Health Minister, Uladzimir Karanik. Among participants of the meeting were also representatives of the Belarusian Center of Hygiene, Epidemiology and Public Health, the Minsk Research Center of Surgery, Transplantology and Hematology, the Belarusian State Medical University, the Belarusian Research Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology.
In his remarks, he called coronavirus nothing else but a psychosis, adding that nobody will die of the coronavirus infection in Belarus. He was absolutely convinced that this was another psychosis playing into the hands of some forces and being detrimental to others. He was also concerned about Belarus suffering more from panic than from the virus itself. According to Lukashenka, the civilized world had gone mad and politicians already started to use the situation for the sake of their interests. Although the Belarusian leader continued to downplay the scale of the threat and compared COVID-19 with the usual seasonal flu and other diseases, he tasked Belarusians to take additional anti-epidemiological measures, including establishing the production of respirators, encouraging Belarusian citizens to stay in isolation if possible, mobilizing social services and paying more attention to elder people, rescheduling public transport in Minsk and the beginning of classes in high schools, etc. Ho
wever, the Belarusian leadership refused to impose a national quarantine and close the state border, so there was no talk of restricting public activities, economic activity, cross-border and internal mobility. Local authorities were tasked with taking appropriate local quarantine measures according to the epidemiological situation. The Ministry of Health and other bodies were fully focused on tracking single cases of infection and contacts of the first and second levels as well as their isolation.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic the Ministry of Health demonstrated confidence in keeping the epidemiological situation under control and was well-prepared in terms of infrastructure to deal with the first phase of the epidemic. According to official data, there are 80,000 hospital beds, including more than two thousand each of resuscitation beds and mechanical ventilation apparatuses and almost one-and-a-half thousand anesthesia-respiratory apparatuses, which in some cases can be used for artificial ventilation of the lungs. Therefore, according to Health Minister Karanik, there were enough equipment for resuscitation services, mechanical ventilation in Belarus.
According to the WHO technical mission, initially Belarus was focusing on preparedness and surge capacity of the health care infrastructure to manage COVID-19 patients. Clinical case management instructions for patients suspected or diagnosed with COVID-19 were developed and were published bythe Minister of Health on March 6, 2020. This included guidance on diagnostic investigations and recommendations on the use of pharmaceutical interventions including antiviral combination therapy— lopinavir/ritonavir and hydroxychloroquine.
Starting on March 16, 2020, designated hospitals in Minsk city and all regional centers were organized and repurposed in anticipation of an increasing workload due to COVID-19. Preparedness measures included point-of-access screening and triage protocols, which were gradually being implemented in polyclinics and emergency medical services.
Efforts were made to ensure the continuity of essential, life-saving health care services—emergency and acute medical services, obstetrics, continuity of chronic diseases care, and mental health. COVID-19 infection prevention and control (IPC) measures were gradually expanded to prevent health care-associated transmission of the virus and to ensure the safety of health care workers and patients.
Given the substantial regional and global shortages of COVID-19 essential supplies, Belarus madea commitment to domestic production of protective equipment for health care works, disinfectants, and laboratory diagnostic kits, according to the WHO experts.
By the beginning of April, this line of behavior was supplemented, behind the scenes, by more proactive measures in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in individual locations (Minsk,12 Viciebsk13). At this stage, the authorities were steadily developing restrictive, sanitary, and other preventive measures aimed at containing the spread of the epidemic. Implementation of these response measures ended with the adoption of comprehensive plans to combat the epidemic in Viciebsk and other areas, including the creation of an operational headquarters in the Viciebsk region,14 the introduction of compulsory two-weeks quarantine15 for all people coming from abroad and other measures similar to the experience of countries neighboring Belarus. At the same time, the “anti-alarmist” line of the Belarusian authorities also did not go away, but at this stage it was transformed to deny the need for any quarantine and closing the state border.
In the beginning of April when the number of confirmed cases exceeded 10016 and began to increase rapidly, and containment of the epidemic took priority in the public agenda, the authorities made another turn in their anti-coronavirus response. As it became pointless to deny the scale of the epidemic, the authorities acted as the main entity responsiblefor countering the epidemic and therefore “inaccessible” to criticism. State-owned media began to focus on the role of the authorities in the fight against the epidemic, and President Lukashenka began mentioning COVID-19 in each of his public speeches. In other words, from trying to be a “coronavirus-dissident” in relation to this threat, the authorities switched to position themselves as “effective managers,” able to resolve the situation and protect people.
The Ministry of Health issued a package of information materials related to the epidemic, including recommendations for elderly people, social workers, post offices and volunteers, on self-isolation of citizens and social-distancing, etc.
At the local level, only a few local authorities (executive committees of Hrodna, Minsk, Minsk region) in early April began to take measures to prevent and reduce the spread of acute respiratory infections, including those caused by coronavirus. The main measures envisage, in particular, the personal responsibility of the heads of enterprises and organizations to prevent employees with signs of respiratory infections, as well as workers who arrived from abroad before the expiration of their self-isolation, from working. Both state-owned and private organizations should, at least once a day, do wet cleaning using disinfectants and ventilate the premises as often as possible. In addition, it is necessary to provide public places with dispensers of antiseptics, liquid soap, and, if necessary, personal protective equipment. Measures also includes disinfection of public transport and train station rooms. Drivers should be provided with masks, gloves, antiseptics.
According to the list of measures, housing and communal services must clean up common areas in apartment buildings using detergents and disinfectants. The availability of medical masks, disposable gloves is now mandatory for trade workers. In shopping facilities, it is recommended that a social distance of at least one meter be maintained. In catering facilities (cafes, bars, restaurants), tables are to be placed at a distance of at least one-and-a-half meters. Exhibitions, presentations, trade fairs and other events in closed rooms are canceled in cities. Sports, cultural, entertainment and other events are limited. Suspended activities of discos, the work of sports and fitness rooms, reading rooms, libraries are limited. It is forbidden to smoke hookah in public catering facilities. Religious organizations are encouraged to reduce mass worship. In several cities it was decided not to hold public events on May holidays (Baranavičy, Brest).
At the same time, the Health Ministry refrained from recommending quarantine measures on educational institutions due to inexpedience. However, the spring school holidays were extended for a week. Later, parents of pupils were allowed to decide whether to send their children to schools or educate them remotely.
Although these recommendations and measures are voluntary in nature, they have significantly changed the lifestyle of Belarusians and mode of activity in big cities of the country. Cinemas, theaters, and concert halls have been closed, more people are working remotely and have voluntarily switched to an isolation mode.
CIVIL SOCIETY RESPONSE: VOLUNTEERS TOGETHER WITH DOCTORS
At the end of March, in response to petitions and fund-raising initiatives by volunteers and activists, the Health Ministry opened a special charity account in support of the national healthcare system. However, as soon as the Belarusian society got to know about the lack of protective equipment for hospital personnel, Minsk Hackerspace, NGO Imena, webdesign agency Global Travel and many Belarusian bloggers launched an impressive campaign (#ByCovid19) providing direct assistance to hospitals upon requests from medical staff. It also invites individuals and businesses to support the project financially, to become a volunteer, to 3D print the face protection, to sew protective masks and other medical uniforms, etc. The campaigners have been raising money via the crowdfunding platform MolaMola. Private businesses have invested in the campaign by supplying washing machines, medical shoes, hygiene and food products to the hospitals. NGO Imena and Belarus Red Cross established a telephone hotline for self-isolated elderly people to socialize and provide psychological support. In early April, the Telegram-channel Host A Superhero was created as a response to numerous cases of doctors who have to spend nights at workplaces in order to avoid infecting their relatives. The initiative connects doctors with people who have empty apartments and can temporarily provide medics with accommodation for free.
Civil society and volunteer campaigns as well as a visit of the WHO mission to Belarus on April 8–11, urged Belarusian governmental NGOs (Belaya Rus,26 Belarusian Republican Youth Union, Belarusian Women’s Union, and others) to join this campaign. They started to monitor the epidemiological situation and provide assistance to doctors as well.
However, by April aggravation about the epidemiological situation revealed a significant shortage of medical and sanitary equipment, especially protective equipment, which failed to meet ongoing needs due to the escalating situation. In the beginning of April, Belarusian doctors used per day approximately two thousand protective suits, twoand-a-half to three thousand respirators and three hundred to three hundred and fifty thousand masks. For comparison, earlier forty to one hundred and fifty protective suits, ten to fifteen thousand masks, and fifty to one hundred and fifty respirators were spent. In Belarus, there were more than two million medical masks, more than ninety thousand respirators, over eighty-five thousand suits, more than ten million pairs of gloves, and twenty-four thousand goggles. Stocks were regularly replenished, according to Belarusian officials.
However, by mid-April the #ByCovid-19 civil society campaign focusing on medical supplies received requests from eight hundred healthcare facilities from across the country. By that time it raised more than USD 135,000 and delivered more than fifty thousand respirators. The Health Ministry reported that about four hundred doctors were infected with the coronavirus, announced high premiums for doctors, and banned them from communicating with the media about appeals to civic initiatives for assistance.30 The President also signed a decree proposing temporary pay rises for doctors working with infectious diseases from BYN 900 to BYN 4,000 per month (USD 370 to USD 1,640).31 About one hundred enterprises in Belarus expanded their product range with protective face masks.
In the beginning of May, civil society initiatives and campaigns continued to raise funds and assist doctors and vulnerable groups directly or through crowdfunding platforms.33 The #ByCovid19 volunteers managed to raise over USD 200,000 to help Belarusian doctors.34 Such a state of affairs demonstrated that the Belarusian authorities were still not able to satisfy all the needs of the national healthcare system amid the deteriorating epidemic situation in the country.
INFORMATION TRANSPARENCY PROBLEM:
From the very beginning, the Belarusian authorities didn’t provide any data about the COVID-19 epidemic to avoid panic. However, the Belarusian leadership was forced to revise the information policy amidst the further spread of the coronavirus and its impact on society as well as because of pressure from international organizations (such as WTO). When the first case of coronavirus infection appeared in Belarus, the Ministry of Health promised to be as open as possible. And it was for a while. But then authorities stopped specifying the exact locations where the infections were recorded, justifying this on the basis that they allegedly disclosed personal information, simultaneously accusing the media of disclosing this information. Then they decided not to report daily new information on the number of people infected. Eventually the messages turned into puzzles: in order to find out the number of people infected throughout the country, journalists had to add up the number of people who recovered and were being monitored.
On April 7, one day before the visit of the WHO technical mission to conduct an expert assessment of the COVID-19 situation in Belarus, President Lukashenka instructed not to hide information about the coronavirus epidemic in the country. He said that the Presidential Administration has a corresponding headquarters in which all current information on the spread of coronavirus is collected.
The same day, the website, StopCOVID, was launched together by the Ministry of Health and the Belarusian Telegraph Agency (BelTA). This has become the official Internet resource for informing the public about coronavirus issues. On April 11, a mapwith regional statistics was removed from the site. The Minister of Health, Uladzimir Karanik, transferred responsibility for this from the authorities to journalists, blaming them of investigating new infection cases against the will of patients. Although it is worth noting that sometimes statistics on regions of Belarus appear on the website, however, as a rule, such information, contrary to WHO recommendations, is not provided, and statistics that would indicate how the situation has been developing are not available. As of the end of April, only data on the number of tests performed, registered cases, and the number of patients who have recovered, been released, or died from COVID-19 were published on the official Internet resource StopCOVID. Also on the site is a selection of news (only from BelTA), information about campaigns in support of doctors, infographics, and links to maps depicting the spread of coronavirus (WHO, J. Hopkins University, Yandex).
In its executive summary, experts of the WHO technical mission emphasized the need for a regular and comprehensive exchange of information, including epidemiological data and its geographical distribution, which is vital to improve understanding about the progression of the outbreak and to explain response measures, such as postponing gatherings or curtailing movements.
The WHO also recognized the COVID-19 response in Belarus provides valuable insight towards understanding the transmission of the virus and the importance of a multisectoral approach to this pandemic. At the time of the mission, COVID-19 testing throughout the country was led by the national and subnational public health systems and supported by the national laboratory network using test kits produced in Belarus. Measures focused on testing individuals suspected of having coronavirus, identifying and tracing contacts, and isolating cases and firstlevel contacts in health care and specially designated facilities. As part of the strategy to identify suspected cases, entry screening and laboratory testing at the international airport in Minsk was put into place for passengers arriving from designated countries. A 14-day compulsory self-isolation for individuals arriving from COVID-19-affected countries was introduced on April 8, 2020. To preserve the health care capacity as case counts were increasing, plans were being developed to shift contacts and mild cases to home isolation. Also, partial and voluntary physical distancing measures were introduced.
Although the WHO experts stressed that this experience will benefit not only the development of the next phase of the response in Belarus, but also the responses in other European countries as well as globally, the overall conclusion was pessimistic.
Measures to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities and in prisons were implemented in collaboration with the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection and the Ministry of Interior, respectively. However, by the end of March, surveillance and epidemiology data provided evidence of a steady increase in COVID-19 cases that approached exponential growth and indicated the beginning of community-level transmission.
After the WHO technical mission left the country, Belarusian authorities continued manipulating the statistics. On April 13, President Lukashenka held a meeting on the epidemiological situation in the country and instructed security services (the State Security Committee, still known as the KGB), the Ministry of Interior, as well as the Ministry of Information to take over control social media and other outlets in order to prevent any attempts to hype up the coronavirus situation in Belarus.40 As a result of this conversation, the Health Ministry became less transparent and considered this instruction as a carte blanche for continuing manipulations with official COVID-19 statistics.
On the same day, statistical information disappeared from the website of the Brest Regional and Baranavičy Zonal Centers for Hygiene, Epidemiology and Public Health. Volha Aniskievič, deputy head physician of the Baranavičy Zonal Center for Hygiene and Epidemiology, explained this fact the following way: “Nobody cares how much they [cases of illness] will increase. Statistics is not what people need to know. They need to understand when the process [the incidence of coronavirus] will subside.”
However in contrast to independent media, which faced a lack of transparency over the COVID-19 response from the Health Ministry and hospital facilities,42 significant pressure was applied to the Belarusian medical staff who first sounded the alarm regarding the dramatic epidemiological situation in the country. For instance at the end of March, Natallia Laryionava, a laboratory diagnostics doctor at the Viciebsk Hospital of Emergency Medicine, distributed a message on social networks that assessed the situation in Viciebsk as out of control and called the figures reported by the WHO from Belarus mythical. On April 1, she was called to the prosecutor’s office for questioning about her comments, but she wasn’t charged.43 On April 30, the head physician of the Viciebsk Clinical Emergency Hospital, Siarhiei Lazar, was relieved of his position shortly after thepublication of his interview, 44 where he criticized the counter-pandemic measures taken by the government and mentioned the shortage of medical protective equipment. 45 These steps, however, encouraged medical staff to practice self-censorship since during further interviews their statements about the state’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic became neutral . In addition on April 17, to ease the situation with medical staff, President Lukashenka signed a decree proposing temporary pay rises for doctors working with infectious diseases from BYN 900 to BYN 4,000 per month.
EPIDEMIOLOGICAL FORECASTS AND DATA MANIPULATIONS
Analysis of public statements by Belarusian officials revealed that there was no consensus about further direction of epidemic dynamics. This can either be explained by a low level of competence and false prediction techniques or underestimation of the gravity of the virus threat. For instance, on March 31, President Lukashenka, referring to a digital analysis of the sickness rate, said that Belarus had reached its peak. He also expected that the peak would go down by Orthodox Easter (April 19). As of March 30, a total of 152 confirmed cases had been reported, including 47 recoveries. On March 31, an officially unconfirmed death of a test-positive 75-yearold patient in Viciebsk was reported by the media. Reportedly, the patient suffered from chronic pulmonary disease. Later that day the Ministry of Healthconfirmed the first death due to COVID-19. On April 19 the Ministry of Health reported a total of 3,538 hospitalized patients (i.e. excluding the ambulatory cases); forty-seven patients had died since the beginning of the pandemic and 494 recovered. The total number of confirmed cases was not given. More than ninety-eight thousand COVID-19 tests were conducted in Belarus as of date.
Then, on April 9, Health Minister Uladzimir Karanik forecasted that the COVID-19 epidemic was expected to reach its peak in Belarus in late April— early May 2020.48 This point of view was initially shared by the Head of the WHO Office in Belarus, Batyr Berdyklychev.49 However, he had to change his position later.50 According to the Ministry of Health, at least three to a maximum of eighteen new infections were detected per day during March. In April, the trend changed: the daily increase was first 100 cases, then—300-400 each day. It was assumed that this trend should continue until the beginning of May, when a peak incidence was expected in Belarus. At least one of these forecasts did not materialize: during last week of April, 700–900 new cases were recorded in the country per day. On April 29, another record was broken—973 new cases were reported.51 As it was later revealed, Belarusian authorities simply had used epidemic forecastsfor Belarus, provided by a COVID-19 predictive monitoring system developed at Singapore University of Technology and Design. However, this system was based on an inappropriate mathematical model (SIR) and data and couldn’t generate accurate epidemiological forecasts. Thus developers of this software decided to delete information from the website of the project, including the forecast for Belarus.
On May 1, a total of 14,917 confirmed cases have been reported, including 2,918 recoveries and 93 deaths. More than 186,000 COVID-19 tests have been conducted in Belarus as of that date. The Head of the WHO Office in Belarus Batyr Berdyklychev immediately called on the Belarusian authorities to take additional steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the country.53 Earlier a team of WHO experts concluded that Belarus entered the community transmission phase, and the country had to introduce community-wide steps to increase physical distancing. Physical distancing measures refer to:
■ postponing large gatherings, including sports, religious and cultural events;
■ placing in quarantine contacts of confirmed patients and people potentially exposed to the virus;
■ introducing options for teleworking, and distance learning for schools, universities, and other educational institutions, and suspending nonessential business;
■ reducing nonessential movements, especially for high-risk groups.
The team of experts on a mission to Belarus also recommended:
■ strong government commitment and leadership to implement a blend of containment and mitigation measures;
■ public engagement by all levels of government to clearly, transparently, and regularly communicate the risks, health advice and response measures, including postponing gatherings and curtailing movement;
■ continuation of essential health services and socioeconomic support for those in need, especially the most vulnerable.
Despite the negative dynamics of the COVID-19 epidemic in April, Belarusian authorities didn’t ban or cancel public worships during Catholic and Orthodox Easter (April 12 and 19, respectively), nationwide Subbotnik (April 25) as well as the Victory Day Parade (May 9). Although these decisions had some ideological and political significance against the background of the presidential election campaign, it is highly likely it allowed the epidemiological situation to develop into a negative scenario.
In the beginning of April, the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies (CSFPS) commissioned from its tech-partner Pangramia company an epidemiological forecast55 using the mathematical model based on SEIR56 (one of the most common tools for forecasting epidemics) to calculate the possible dynamics of the incidence of COVID-19 in Belarus in a negative scenario (thus without taking additional containing measures). The model used about 20 epidemiological and infrastructural parameters, reliable estimates of which had not been obtained for Belarus, and instead used the global average values of the course of the epidemic in other countries. The model demonstrated following results:
■ In the first week of May (70th day of the epidemic),the model gives a forecast of about 20 deaths per day and about 210 deaths from the beginning of the epidemic in the country. The number of incoming people with the need for hospitalization is about 1,830 per day, and a total of COVID-19 positive patients for hospitalization are 15,280.
■ According to negative estimates, the peak of infection may occur with a slight shift, in the middle of May, and the peak of hospitalizations in early June with a risk of exceeding resources of the national health system.
■ In the third week of May—beginning of June, the total number of deaths could be about three thousand with a predicted burden of more than 300 deaths per day, the total number of infected could exceed 115 thousand people (one-and-a-half times more than all available hospital beds), and the maximum number of applications for self-isolation or hospitalization could reach up to two thousand per day.
■ In order to cope with the incoming number of patients, no later than mid-May, only moderate and serious cases could be taken to hospitals, leaving the mild and asymptomatic COVID-19 cases under home quarantine.
■ This measure may help the national health system withstand the peak of the epidemic at the beginning of June (90th day)
■ By mid-June, if the epidemic does not stop and appropriate measures are not taken to expand the current capacity of the health care system as well as the number of hospital beds and staff, it will be not enough to deal with even the most severe cases. In this case the epidemic will extend to the end of autumn—beginning of winter.
The model’s figures for COVID-19 infected patients were close to the official data as of May 1 (15,280 vs 14,917). However, there is a significant gap between number of potential and confirmed deaths (210 vs 93). Experts analyzed video footage of the May 3 meeting held by President Lukashenka and found evidence of possible manipulations with statistics (the confirmed number of cases in late April might have been higher than 1,000 per day, but was reported as being under 1,000).58 Even more disturbing is journalists’ analysis of the number of COVID-19 related casualties among medics. They found the share of medics in total fatalities to be 10% which was unrealistically high against the backdrop of other nations’ statistics showing that share to be under 1%. Even if the share of casualties of medics in Belarus is indeed higher than in other nations and equals 2%, that means the total COVID-19 related death toll is around 500, three times higher than what has been officially reported. According to journalist investigations, while the Ministry of Health was reassuring citizens with stable mortality rates from COVID-19, hundreds of special corpse bags were being purchased by hospitals and clinics. The Ministry of Health issued a special instruction to place all coronavirus-infected corpses in these bags, and only then the body in the bag is put into the coffin. For instance, as early as April 3, the Lida Central Hospital placed a tender on the procurement website for the acquisition of 600 pieces of such corpse bags.
One of the reasons for such a state of affairs is that state ministries and agencies have to follow the line of President Lukashenka defined in his public statements. According to his remarks, no people had died from COVID-19 per se in Belarus as of that date: “Not a single person had died from coronavirus in our country. Not a single one! They died from a bouquet of chronic diseases, which they had. Coronavirus is not even a push, it is the atmosphere in which their chronic diseases develop.” In his further remarks, Lukashenka addressed the currently hospitalized COVID-19 patients: “There’s no reason for them to worry. No one will die from coronavirus in our country. I am stating this publicly.” When publishing the coronavirus-related statistics, the Ministry of Health usually claimed that COVID-19 patients die due to chronic and co-existing illnesses. Those patients who die from coronavirus-infected pneumonia are not reсordered by the official COVID-19 statistics.
Belarusian authorities were trying to prove the adequacy of their response to COVID-19 by referring to assessments of the WHO experts or even comparing its response with the so-called Sweden path. However, these comparisons raised more questions than answers. As of May 13, in Belarus a total of 25,828 confirmed cases were reported, including 146 deaths. While Sweden is comparable to Belarus in terms of population (10 versus 9.5 million people) Sweden encouraged its population to practice social distancing earlier and has reported 27,909 confirmed cases, including 3,460 deaths. This comparison provides further insight about the scale of losses from COVID-19 while Belarusian authorities have continued to manipulate official data. They have allegedly been trying to prevent panic with this shady approach, but this could easily lead to the opposite effect as the epidemiological situation has been continuing to get out of the control.
Another indicator confirms this development. As of May 13, Belarus was also ahead of other countries of the former USSR in the number of detectedcases of COVID-19 per 1 million people, according to Our World In Data Research Project and based on data analysis from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. So on May 13 in Belarus, 2.6 thousand cases of infection were detected per 1 million people, while in neighboring Russia, 1.5 thousand; Estonia, 1.3 thousand; Moldova, 1.2 thousand; Armenia, 1.1 thousand. Also in Belarus, the highest rate was reported among neighboring countries. In Lithuania, 547 cases were detected per 1 million of the population, in Latvia, 503; in Poland, 447; in Ukraine, 336. For comparison, in Europe this figure is 2.1 thousand cases per 1 million people. Data for selected countries most affected by coronavirus: Spain, 4.8 thousand; Italy, 3.6 thousand; Britain, 3.3 thousand; France, 2.1 thousand; Germany, 2 thousand.
There has been a consensus within the Belarusian expert community regarding the falsification and manipulation of official statistics. However, their scale is a matter of further expert discussion. When analyzing the available Belarus-wide mortality and infectious diseases statistics for Q1 2020, the picture is contradictory.66 The mortality overall decreased in the whole country by 3.7%. during this period. Against this background, Minsk and Viciebsk each demonstrated a 1.9% increase compared to Q1 2019.67 Coincidentally, the first COVID-19 outbreaks started in Minsk and Viciebsk in April. According to accidentally disclosed data of the Belarusian Society of Resuscitation Anesthetists, at the end of April, 117 people died from coronavirus alone in the intensive care units of Minsk hospitals. Meanwhile, as of May 1, the Ministry of Health reported 93 deaths throughout the country.
However, since the COVID-19 epidemic entered a new phase of community-level transmission in April and the peak is expected at the end of May—beginning of June, the statistics for Q1 2020 don’t seem to be representative data. Thus, statistics for Q2 and Q3 2020 may be more relevant in this regard.
But there have been no reasons yet to be optimistic. According to the Eurasian States in Transition (EAST) Research Center, that applied a mathematical model developed by Imperial College London, the COVID-19 epidemic in Belarus may cause up to 68,000 deaths if the Belarusian authorities fail to take proper steps to combat the infection. Such a worst-case scenario also implies nearly 350,000 hospitalizations. If a soft package of measures is introduced in the country, the death toll may be volatile between 15,000 to 32,000. If Belarus imposes severe quarantine measures when the death rate is 18 per week, it will contribute to decreasing the number of coronavirus deaths to 1,860.
ANTI-CORONACRISIS MEASURES AND THEIR PUBLIC PERCEPTION
From the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Belarusian authorities were more concerned about its geopolitical and economic consequences than its implications to the epidemiological situation in the country. An important signal indicating the level of understanding of the problem in the Belarusian establishment came from President Lukashenka at the end of March—beginning of April. On the one hand, the Belarusian leader was critical of foreign governments for introducing lockdowns, declaring states ofemergencies, and closing borders. According to him, the “coronapsychosis” crippled national economies almost everywhere in the world, but Belarus couldn’t introduce a draconian quarantine due to the dramatic negative consequences it would have on the national economy since it “hasn’t a money-printing machine or a pipe” unlike the US and Russia.
On the other hand, he claimed that the “mass hysteria” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic reflects not the threat posed by the disease, but rather the attempt of some world “powerful circles” to use this event in order to buy depreciated assets and otherwise transform the world to their benefit without a war.71 These claims pointed to the fact that Lukashenka was under heavy influence of conspiracy theories produced by some state analytical institutions.
Later, Lukashenka explained why enterprises were not stopped in Belarus. According to him, major global players will use this disaster to crush weaker countries and the prospect may be the following: “Either starve to death, or surrender without war and go under the protectorate, subordinate to the rich and strong states.” He also called on people to think about what will happen to the Belarusian economy and people after the pandemic ends, thus emphasizing economic and sociopolitical stability as priorities.
There were not only political, but also economic motives behind the authorities’ reluctance to introduce quarantine measures and close the state border. As the Belarusian economy already entered recession shrinking 0.3% in Q1 2020, additional burdens and restrictions on growth would make the economic situation intolerable for large numbers of people especially in the contest of the forthcoming presidential elections on August 9. According to the World Bank, the country’s GDP will shrink by 4%,74 the IMF forecasts a contraction of 6%,75 and the EBRD expects a decline of 5% in 2020.76 Belarusian experts from BEROC economic research center have made even more dramatic forecasts predicting a decline in GDP in various scenarios between 3.5% and 18%,77 and unemployment—between 500 thousand and 1.3 million Belarusians.
While Belarusian authorities were still not recognizing the national epidemic as a problem, they were expressing serious concerns over the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic to the national economy. In line with this approach, on April 24, President Lukashenka signed an anti-crisis decree to support the economy in order to minimize negative economic consequences from the pandemic.79 The document provided support for companies in certain sectors of the economy that have been most affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The list included manufacturing, textile and clothing manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, air travel, fitness centers, beauty salons, hairdressers, restaurants, bars, travel companies and others. Support measures include tax holidays provided by local authorities until September 30, rent free periods, and a moratorium on increasing rent rates. Individual entrepreneurs were given the opportunity to switch to other tax regimes in the course of the year.
The Ministers of health, antimonopoly regulation, and trade, as well as the chairman of the State Standardization Committee, were granted the power to suspend the operation of a shopping facility, catering facility for up to 90 days until violations of the legislation on pricing, trade, and sanitary and epidemiological welfare of the population were eliminated.
In order to preserve employment and increase labor mobility, the minimum period for warning employees about changes in essential working conditions by the employer was extended. The period of a possible temporary transfer of workers due to production needs was also extended to 3 months.
A sick leave payment will be provided to those who take care of a child under the age of ten years, attending a pre-school or general secondary education institution, if this child is a first or second level contact.
In order to simplify the procurement procedures, customers were granted the right to procure from one source (to the extent necessary to meet two month demand) if the contract with the previous supplier has been terminated. Suppliers who have not fulfilled their obligations and are forced to terminate the contract for objective reasons will temporarily not be included in the list of unscrupulous suppliers. In addition, the Government is empowered to determine, if necessary, a different procedure for public procurement.
Individuals who received antiseptics, disinfectants, and food, as part of the implementation of sanitary and anti-epidemic measures, were exempted from income tax.
The National Bank published its April survey on business sentiment. The survey was based on interviews of top-managers of 1,700 enterprises in four aggregated sectors: industry, trade, construction, and transport. The resulting index is smoothed to factor out seasonal fluctuations. In April 2020, the survey reported the lowest smoothed aggregate business sentiment index on record. It went down to negative 17.3 versus negative 5.6 in March 2020 and positive 3.9 in April 2019. The smoothed index in industry was negative 13.2 down from negative 4.3 in March 2020 and positive 4.1 in April 2019. The business sentiment index in trade was down to negative 16.2 (a record low) from negative 1 in March 2020 and positive 7.5 in April 2019. The smoothed index in construction fell to negative 16.1 from negative 6.3 in March 2020 and negative 1.5 in April 2019.80
According to First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Krutoi, in addition to the already adopted package of measures, the government was preparing two more packages of measures to support the economy.
They will authorize support for the social protection sector and labor market. In the social sphere the authorities plan to increase financial assistance for people with low incomes who were receiving state targeted social assistance (first of all, to respective families with children). The allowance for each family member will be increased to bring their income to the level of the minimum subsistence budget. A total of about 300 million rubles will be allocated to this.
The Government also plans to support the employees of those enterprises that were forced to halt production and employees that have been transferred to part-time employment during the crisis. These workers will be additionally paid up to the minimum wage, which is now 375 Belarusian rubles (BYN).
Another measure the Government plans is to increase the unemployment allowance for those who lost their jobs in the second quarter of 2020 (i.e. due to the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on the economy) to the subsistence minimum of BYN 247 / USD 100 (instead of the current maximum level of BYN 54 / USD 22). This step is designed to encourage the unemployed to register with the employment service. After such registration, if an unemployed person refuses two offers of suitable work from an employment service, he or she is removed from the unemployment record and ceases to receive the allowance accordingly. The same rule will apply to those who will receive the new, higher allowances.
With their unemployment allowance raise, the authorities are essentially using the anti-crisis policy as a pretext for creating the social protection mechanism that has been advocated for many years by supporters of structural reforms of the Belarusian economy. This, in its turn, opens the way to a more dynamic reform of the state enterprises even before voting day for the presidential election. Another motive for this is to take steps towards opening new loan programs from the IMF, within the framework of combating negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and for medium-term support of the structural reform of the Belarusian economy.
Overall the authorities intend to spend from BYN 5 to 6 billion (USD 2 to 2.5 billion) to minimize the fallout from the global pandemic on the economy and social sphere. The increase in financing of the health care sector alone will amount to about BYN 850 million (USD 350 million) in 2020. To this end, the government plans to attract foreign loans totaling USD 2–2.5 billion. While negotiations with international financial institutions are ongoing, Belarus has placed 10 billion Russian rubles (USD 133.8 million) worth of five-year bonds with a coupon rate of 8.5% per annum on the Moscow Stock Exchange. Besides, the Belarusian government is holding negotiations with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to allocate a USD 250 million credit line for Belarusbank and USD 100 million credit line from the development bank to support companies from the most affected sectors of the economy. By supporting the social sector, the authorities are compensating for their inability to keep many of the state-owned enterprises afloat.
Thus, the economic crisis and the response strat-egy chosen by the authorities put an increased burden on the private sector. The authorities’ strategy allows them to “save” strategically important stateowned enterprises and dramatically increase social spending. All this will turn the state into the main source of stable jobs and income for the population. But instead of relying on the loyalty of the employees of the state-owned enterprises (which the government has no money to save) the authorities will now have to rely on the loyalty of employees of budget financed organizations and pensioners to maintain their political dominance. And the interests of the latter two groups are now opposed to the interests of the state enterprises and their employees as they both compete for the scarce budgetary funds. This creates prerequisites both for structural reform of the public sector of the economy and for regrouping on the political field, including transformation of the institutional design of the Belarusian state.
Interestingly, a public opinion poll conducted in April by BEROC economic research center and SATIO company demonstrated that the main concern of Belarusians during the coronavirus epidemic has been the decline in income, and only then—the collapse of the healthcare system. Many have expected from the authorities a greater reaction and proactive steps in the fight against the epidemic—the cancelation of mass events, the introduction of quarantine in educational institutions, although they haven’t not advocated a total lockdown. On the whole, in April Belarusians began to look more pessimistically at the situation. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said that the situation had worsened over the month, 29% noted improvement, 4% did not notice changes.
According to the poll, the number of pessimists increased. Already 66% of respondents believed that within a month the situation would worsen. In March 62% believed the situation would worsen. Also the number of optimists increased by two percentage points up to 19%. The proportion of those who found it difficult to answer or did not expect changes, decreased.
The survey results also showed that Belarusians are more pessimistic about the prospects of the economic crisis provoked by the coronavirus pandemic. Forty-six percent of Belarusians expect a long crisis, and 43% expect improvement within 6-12 months.
There is a connection between the expectations of the development of the epidemiological situation and the expectations of economic development. Fifty-four percent of those who expect the epidemiological situation to worsen also expect a protracted crisis. Among those who expect an improvement of the situation, only 27% expect a protracted crisis. But 28% expect an economic recovery within 2-3 months. Belarusians are increasingly feeling a drop in income. Fifty-two percent already reported a decline in revenue. The average revenue reduction was 45%. The outlook also remains negative. Forty-eight percent indicated a further drop in income.
According to the poll, Belarusians advocate state support to enterprises. In one form or another, 94% of respondents favor it. At the same time, 69% believe that assistance is needed for both state and private companies, regardless of ownership. Only 5% of respondents are sure that support should be provided first, only to the largest enterprises with a large number of employees.
Among Belarusians, there is a growing demand for a clearer and more active response by the authorities to epidemiological threats. Society remains heavily involved in coronavirus issues and follows the news. According to the poll, only 12% admitted that they did not follow the news. Moreover, the older people are, the more likely they follow news about the epidemic.
The April poll also revealed that the majority of Belarusians are in favor of a so-called soft quarantine based on social distancing measures. However, Belarusians understand these measures in their own way. The most anticipated measure of social distancing is the prohibition of mass social events (74%). The second area of consensus relates to the improvement of official information about the COVID-19 epidemic in the country (71%). The third most popular measure among Belarusians is the closure of educational institutions (52%). This is followed by remote work regime (49%) and then border closure (38%). The introduction of curfews and the ban on going out was supported by only 17% of respondents.
According to the poll, Belarusians understand quarantine as a rather soft option. Sixty-three percent favor being able to go out of the house while maintaining the distance—55% favor staying at home and rarely going out on the streets.
INSTEAD OF AN EPILOGUE
The Belarusian leadership has chosen a very risky approach to managing the epidemic and covering it in the media. If the epidemic is controlled, this approach will allow Lukashenka to position himself as triumphant and “smarter than the rest.” But if the epidemic does get out of control and the number of fatalities becomes high, the political costs of the authorities’ strategy could be very high. The outrage against the erroneous anti-epidemic policies coupled with economic downturn might create preconditions for a serious crisis of domestic and international legitimacy against the background of forthcoming presidential elections on August 9 this year.