The beleaguered government of Belarus is unfazed by Covid-19. President Aleksander Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994, has flatly dismissed the pandemic’s severity, refusing to enforce a curfew, close schools, or cancel mass gatherings such as the Belarusian Football League or the Victory Day parade.
Yet the country’s mortality rate is among the lowest in Europe, just over 700 with over 73.000 confirmed cases in a population of 9.5 million.
Andrei Vitushka, a health policy expert at the Belarusian Center for Strategic Studies in Vilnius, Lithuania, says that the relatively low death rate is believed to be due to Belarus’ wide hospital capacity, which helped the country to separate citizens early on.
With 11 hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants, Belarus outnumbers countries such as Germany (8) or the United Kingdom (2.5). It’s normally a challenge because it costs a lot of money to sustain them, but in this case, it has been our asset,” says Vitushka, an intensive care doctor in Belarus.
“Like other post-Soviet nations, Belarus focuses on “sanitary-epidemiological issues,” meaning large-scale health scares such as a pandemic, “says Rasmus Nilsson, a teaching fellow at the Slavonic and Eastern European Studies School at University College London.
This may be one explanation of why Belarus still outperforms much of Europe regarding the pandemic in terms of mass monitoring. According to the state-owned news agency BelTA, although several countries were hesitant to carry out rigorous tests, work began in Belarus as early as 23 January. Most kits were donated or imported from China and Russia using government funds and contributions from companies and ordinary citizens. In early April, the country stepped up research, producing its own rapid testing kits and moving in May to the use of domestically manufactured polymerase chain reaction testing reagents. There are now 32 labs analyzing samples throughout the world, according to government information, and research in hospitals and GPs is widespread.
By the end of June, about one million tests had been performed in Belarus, representing more than 10% of its population.
People do it on their own
Details on security protocols and the country’s position have been sparse, inconsistent, and sometimes confusing, with the last of a handful of press conferences on the pandemic held on 24 April. For any resident, it is a personal choice to wear a face mask or not.
Early on, people started practicing self-isolation. A ‘ByCovid19’ crowdfunding initiative was launched on 26 March to purchase protective devices for hospitals around the world. In three months, the campaign raised roughly $360 000 (£277 000; €304 000) and with the aid of about 1500 supporters, bought and distributed about 450 000 items of personal protective equipment, oxygen tanks, and other medical supplies.
While the Ministry of Health partnered with ByCovid19 crowdfunding and took steps to reorganize hospitals and promote social distancing.
Another factor is that Belarus has relatively few nursing homes, with most senior people living independently (203 beds per 100.000 population compared to 854 in the United Kingdom). This has served to protect the neediest. “In several cases in Belarus, elderly people, particularly in the countryside or in single flats, have already been isolated,” Nilsson says.”
Belarus has also benefited from being a comparatively remote country where it is convenient for the government to close borders and track those going by.