“When there wasn’t a lockdown or the general regulations in practice in Belarus, I suppose the risk was very high,” said Adi Roche, whose Chernobyl Children International charity helps fund Vesnova.
Now — with more than 15,000 confirmed cases — Belarus has one of Eastern Europe’s highest per capita infection rates, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Those figures collide head-on with President Alexander Lukashenko’s policies, setting up a potential hot spot even as much of Europe weighs how to reopen with the worst of the outbreak possibly behind them.
Lukashenko has pushed back on recommendations from the World Health Organization — and his own Health Ministry — for social distancing and business closures. Even sporting events go on, but with fewer and fewer spectators.
Lukashenko appears unwilling to put further strain on an economy that was already sliding and had confidence in a health-care system that has weathered past outbreaks — but nothing on this scale.
Yet Lukashenko’s denials — going so far as to say no one really dies of covid-19 alone — are falling flat with some under his rule. Many people are self-imposing quarantines and social distancing regardless of what the government says.
Attendance is so poor for Belarus’s top soccer league that one club, FC Dynamo Brest, put mannequins with cutout photographs of fans in the stands. Some fan groups have called for a boycott.
Even in late March, when there were fewer than 200 confirmed cases in Belarus, a survey revealed 70 percent of participants considered it necessary to ban mass events.
“You can witness more and more people observing physical distancing in shops, for example, or wearing masks in public places,” said Batyr Berdyklychev, the World Health Organization’s representative in Belarus.
He also warned, however, that “a rapid growth of new cases in the absence of adequate physical distancing measures may soon lead to a dramatic overload of the existing health system capacity.”
The Ministry of Health has attributed 89 deaths to covid-19, but last week, Lukashenko blamed other causes. “No one has died from coronavirus, everyone is dying from chronic illnesses because all viruses strike those who are weak and have no immunity,” he said, according to BelTA, the state news agency.
The timing of Lukashenko’s curious approach to the coronavirus is critical.
He has announced that the upcoming presidential elections won’t be postponed, to be held no later than Aug. 30, as the 65-year-old authoritarian stalwart seeks a sixth term. He has been in power since 1994, facing little opposition, but his country is at a crossroads. Relations with Moscow are strained, so Lukashenko is courting closer ties with the United States and Europe.
But domestic disapproval of his coronavirus response is still a long way off from translating into a threat to his hold on power.
“Since nobody knows how the pandemic will unfold, this is fundamentally unpredictable,” said Artyom Shraibman of Sense Analytics, a Minsk-based political consultancy.
“At the same time, he is still a rather crafty politician,” he added. “If he feels the ground is shaking beneath him, he would immediately change course to ensure the loyalty of subordinates. Just narrowing public trust is not enough. He survived periods when his support rate was below 25 percent.”
The coronavirus infiltrating the Vesnova institution could be devastating. The facility, about 100 miles east of Minsk, is home to patients whose compromised immune systems make them more vulnerable to the disease.
It has been locked down since the first cases were detected, meaning that the 47 staff members inside, who would usually work in shifts, will be on the job for 14 straight days while quarantined.
“We have created a hospice and palliative care unit, and there is a high-dependency unit,” said Roche, of Chernobyl Children International, an Irish aid group. “These would be the areas where the children are most fragile and vulnerable. And the task of all of us is to keep that place virus free. But as long as people are living cheek by jowl, living in close density, it’s going to be extremely difficult to keep the place virus free.”
Roche said Chernobyl Children International has appealed to Belarusan authorities to evacuate the children not infected and temporarily house them at hotels or other facilities better suited for physical distancing than the cramped accommodations at Vesnova.
Meanwhile, life outside the institution’s walls is largely continuing as normal in Belarus.
Cafes and restaurants are open — and not just for takeout and delivery. Preparations are ongoing for a military parade on May 9, which would commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Allies’ triumph over Nazi Germany. Russia has already canceled its Victory Day festivities because of the pandemic.
After a WHO mission visited Belarus recently, the agency announced its recommendations: postponing large gatherings, including sports, religious and cultural events; introducing remote work and learning options; suspending nonessential businesses; and reducing nonessential movements, especially for high-risk groups.
Lukashenko’s response was that the WHO doesn’t “really love us. This is an international organization, which always involves a lot of politics,” according to BelTA.
He has also been sensitive to Russian state media’s coverage of Belarus’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying last week that “everyone is poking fun at me” and “everyone is trying to figure out how to bite Lukashenko, Belarus, because they’re not following suit.”