What, besides statistics, are the authorities hiding?
In October, the average daily incidence of Covid-19 in Belarus - about 2 thousand cases - became a record for the entire time since the beginning of the pandemic. According to unofficial data, the number of people infected with coronavirus can be ten times higher. Despite the record statistics of the Ministry of Health and low vaccination rates, Lukashenka canceled the mandatory wearing of masks and urged not to force people to get vaccinated. Doctors who left the country after the protests accuse the authorities of lying and denying reality.
The BBC Russian service tells what is happening with Covid-19 in Belarus and how the position of Aliaksandr Lukashenka in relation to the coronavirus has changed since the beginning of the pandemic.
Discrepancy in numbers
"The situation with Covid-19 in the country causes cautious optimism. I cannot make any special claims yet, but we can't let our guard down. Thank you very much," Lukashenka said during a visit to the red zone of the Lida Central Regional Hospital on October 26.
Lukashenka, surrounded by doctors and officials in medical overalls and respirators, at first, did not put on the mask correctly on the first try and then sprinkled himself with an antiseptic as if it were cologne. Then he went to the patient in the ward and advised not to worry. "You will live!" Lukashenka assured her and recommended drinking plenty of water.
Recently, the ruler could be seen in the coronavirus departments of hospitals throughout Belarus (“Lukashenka was interested, is interested, and will be interested in this issue,” his press secretary explains), however, the “healthy optimism” that Lukashenka speaks of is not always visible even in the official statistics from the Ministry of Health.
In October, the average daily incidence of Covid-19 (about 2 thousand cases) became a record for the entire time since the beginning of the pandemic. Moreover, every day in the country, according to official figures, 13-17 people die. In the first wave, the Ministry of Health reported a thousand cases of infections a day on average.
In total, since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 590 thousand cases of Covid-19 have been registered in Belarus. During this time, more than 4500 people have died "with an identified coronavirus infection" (this is the wording of the Belarusian Ministry of Health).
For comparison, in neighboring Lithuania, with a population three times less than Belarus, more than 5.5 thousand people died from Covid-19, in Poland - almost 77 thousand.
In Belarus, about 20% of the population is fully vaccinated. In Latvia, which announced a new lockdown, 51.8% of the country's population received both vaccinations.
From the very beginning of the pandemic, Belarusian oppositionists and independent media accused the authorities of hushing up the real numbers on the coronavirus. They talked about the twice underestimated statistics on morbidity in Minsk. They cited unnamed doctors for safety reasons, who said that the death rate in just one single hospital is almost equal to the number of deaths nationwide.
The Medical Solidarity Fund of Belarus (founded to help health care workers who suffered from repression after the presidential elections) claims that the statistics of morbidity and mortality from coronavirus in the country can be underestimated dozens of times. "Between 5 and 15 patients die every day in each of the Covid-19 hospitals in Minsk alone," the fund told the BBC.
On October 12, Zerkalo published material with data on coronavirus in Minsk, according to which more than three thousand cases of Covid-19 diseases were detected in the capital on October 7 (the document was sent by a health officer). The Ministry of Health claims that 1,000,995 patients with Covid-19 were registered throughout Belarus at that time.
From butter to cancer
Aliaksandr Lukashenka outlined his "special position" regarding the coronavirus immediately after the pandemic spread to the European continent in February 2020: soon many EU countries began to rapidly close their state borders.
"It is difficult for one person to walk in the world, especially against the tide. But I nevertheless made a decision that we should not close. But how can we close and not work if peasants are sowing in the village?", Lukashenka said in April 2020, calling Western countries that had declared a lockdown "beaten dogs."
At the same time, the ruler began handing out advice on how to "properly" treat oneself from the coronavirus: the lazy ones should go take a breath, the sick ones - eat butter (the fats it contains, according to Lukashenka, help the lungs fight the virus), sit by the fire, or at least air out the room.
In March 2020, a video from one of the state-run media outlets circulated on social networks, showing Lukashenka in a hockey uniform with a stick in his hands telling a journalist his version of the existence of a pandemic: "Do you see a coronavirus? Neither do I!"
In Belarus, a victory parade was held on May 9, even though the march was canceled even in Russia, and, four months later, Aliaksandr Lukashenka (who at that time "had had a coronavirus but didn't stay in bed," as he said) said that 97% of Belarusians carry Covid-19 asymptomatically.
However, after the presidential elections in August 2020, Lukashenka unexpectedly changed his position: at a meeting with Vladimir Putin, he reflected on the threat of coronavirus and even thanked the Russian president for giving Belarusians the Sputnik V vaccine. Lukashenka himself said that he would be vaccinated only with the Belarusian vaccine, which they promise to start producing in 2023.
In December 2020, Belarus announced the closure of land borders - though only for departure. Then, many experts said that this decision was not dictated by fears for the health of people but aimed at extinguishing the protests that gripped the country after the presidential elections (restrictions on leaving the country are still in effect).
Recently, Aliaksandr Lukashenka put forward his hypothesis about the benefits of the disease. Speaking to the medical staff at one of the city's hospitals, he said that Covid-19 can help treat cancer.
“Oncology has dropped significantly, not because people do not seek medical help but because something like this is happening,” Lukashenka said.
Russian and Belarusian oncologists noticed that the ruler was at least "wrong" - in the context of a pandemic, there are not enough resources for patients with other diagnoses all over the world.
With and without botox
In October 2021, when the situation with the coronavirus in the country deteriorated sharply, Aliaksandr Lukashenka once again demonstrated his unwillingness to follow the "draconian methods" of the West: he canceled fines for refusing to wear masks, calling this measure "mockery of people" (he himself often appears in public without a mask), and stated that forcing people to get vaccinated "with a stick" is not necessary: "I do not like violence."
Soon after that, announcements on the observance of the mask regime disappeared from the metro cars (the Mediazona correspondent reported that the memos were also torn from the windows of trolleybuses and buses, and, on October 22, the Ministry of Health canceled the mandatory wearing of masks.
“Lukashenka wrote out a prescription for how to survive the coronavirus for both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” said the presenter of one of the state TV channels two days later.
On October 23, Yevgeny Pustovoy, an anchor of the pro-government TV channel STV, said that Lukashenka was "the only ruler who did not hide during covid from the people in bunkers and from ministers and journalists using teleconferences," probably alluding to Vladimir Putin, who appeared less frequently during the pandemic in public and held meetings remotely.
“Sleepless nights of worry were reflected on Lukashenka’s face - he doesn’t use botox,” the presenter added.
The words got into Russian social networks, and the media, Pustovoy, and his colleagues had to back down and say that they did not mean Vladimir Putin but Joe Biden.
Canteens without oxygen
It is difficult to find out about the coronavirus situation on the spot: doctors in Belarus are afraid to communicate with journalists, fearing dismissals and criminal cases. Basically, information comes from those who managed to go abroad or anonymously.
The Russian service of the BBC asked the Ministry of Health of Belarus for a comment on the situation with the coronavirus; no response had been received at the time of publication.
Co-founder of the e-Zdorovje platform (which provides online consultations with doctors) and representative of the opposition Medical Solidarity Fund, Vladimir Svirkov, tells the BBC that the Belarusian authorities "deny there is a problem with the coronavirus as such."
"Everyone understands the complexity of the situation, up to the Minister of Health, everyone understands that there is an epidemiological catastrophe in the country," says Vladimir Svirkov.
He believes that the current wave of coronavirus in Belarus is the most severe since the beginning of the pandemic: “The shortage of personnel is higher, there is a high mortality rate among the unvaccinated, the medical staff is tired, the equipment of hospitals is worse, and there are more patients. This strain [Delta-Lite, which was first identified in the country on Oct. 25] was expected back in early summer, but ignoring the problem has led to what we have."
According to the Medical Solidarity Foundation, departments for the treatment of patients with Covid-19 in Belarus are overloaded by more than 20%. Compartments in the corridors and canteens are redesigned for covid wards where there are no outlet points for oxygen supply at all.
However, the Ministry of Health paints a different picture: the rate of increase in the incidence of coronavirus is decreasing, the number of patients on mechanical ventilation is decreasing by several people per day, and, for example, in the Hrodna region, only 35% of all available beds are used to treat patients with Covid-19.
At the same time, on October 18, the Ministry of Health announced the suspension of all routine medical care in order to "protect patients from infection with Covid-19." However, Lukashenka criticized this decision, and the Ministry of Health has canceled it on October 25.