Belarusian civil society steps forward as strongman defies coronavirus threat

Nearly 3,000 people are confirmed to have contracted the novel coronavirus in Belarus, with 33 reported deaths. For the time being, there have been no quarantine measures imposed, and many Belarusians’ lives have not changed drastically yet.

On April 11, the World Health Organisation finished its three-day mission to assess the pandemic situation in Belarus. Inter alia, WHO recommends the Belarusian authorities cancel a number of large-scale events, e.g. the national football league. However, it remains unclear whether President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will agree to implement the measures.

Meanwhile, Minsk is getting ready for the Victory Day military parade scheduled for May, 9. The current sporting competitions in Belarus have caught the interest of thousands of fans from all over the world. The authorities’ careless attitude to the coronavirus issue is believed to come from Lukashenka, who had earlier advised Belarusians to cure the disease with vodka, sauna and working in the field.

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At the same time, dozens of non-state initiatives have emerged as a response to the government’s failure to face up to the problem and, in particular, make up for the shortage of medical masks, gloves, and sanitisers. Volunteers, businesses, organisations, and many individuals have united in securing financial, technical, and information support to the Belarusians amid the pandemic.

#ByCovid19

As soon as the public got to know about the lack of protective equipment for hospitals’ personnel, Minsk Hackerspace, NGO Imena, web-design agency Global Travel and many Belarusian bloggers started to act on their own. They later coordinated efforts and created #ByCovid19, the initiative that invites individuals and businesses to support the project financially, to become a volunteer, or to 3D print the face protection.

The needs at the hospitals are reported by the medical workers who either call or fill in the online form on its webpage bycovid19.com. The campaign coordinators later buy. collect and distribute the materials needed. Within a week, Minsk Hackerspace managed to print out more than 2,000 face masks. #ByCovid19 volunteers have already delivered thousands of face masks, protection gear, and technical equipment to the hospitals. Its reach has already covered the entire country, including small towns.

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In addition, the coordinators of the platform created information posters in the Belarusian and Russian languages. They can be found on the website of #ByCovid19 and printed out by anyone.

Crowdfunding campaign

The campaigners are raising money via the crowdfunding platform Molamola and provide transparent reports on the expenditures. So far, the initiative has collected around $65,000 from almost 6,500 transactions. Private businesses have invested in the campaign by supplying washing machines, medical shoes, hygiene and food products to the hospitals. The motto of the campaign is ‘We are not looking for an answer on WHO IS TO BLAME. What interests us now the most is WHAT IS TO BE DONE’.

Helpline for elderly and legal support

NGO Imena and Belarus Red Cross have set up a telephone hotline for self-isolated elderly people who need to talk to someone. Their workers are in position to socialise and provide psychological support. Lawyer Alyaksandr Zhuk offered free consultations for medical workers on taxes, rights, credits etc.

Host a superhero!

In early April, the channel Host A Superhero appeared on Telegram as a response to the housing problem many doctors are now facing. Belarusian media have reported on numerous cases of doctors who have to spend nights at workplaces in order to avoid infecting their families. However, Belarusian hospitals are not equipped for long-term living. In this context, the activists decided to connect the doctors in need and the people who have empty apartments and can temporarily host medics for free.

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Music tour with Lyavon Volski

Iconic Belarusian musician Lyavon Volski had to cancel his music tour due to the pandemic. Instead, he announced the schedule of online concerts. Volski goes life on Facebook at 20.00 (local time) – starting with Poland on April, 16 and finishing with Belarus on April, 30.

Local businesses’ support

While in many countries residents are called on to support small local businesses, the situation in Belarus is different. For example, the Hrodna-based coffee shop Nasha Kava donates 20% of takeaway profit to the crowdfunding mentioned above. 157, a local taxi service, introduced 50% discount for medical workers, reports Hrodnalife.

How does state react?

Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Photo: president.gov.by

There is hardly any information about #ByCovid19 in official sources. At the same time, state-run TV channel ONT made a report about the initiative. Popularising volunteers’ actions is, however, not in the priority of some local media. For example, the newspaper Hrodzenskaya Prauda claims that local medical personnel did not go short of protection gear. According to the article, the volunteers just want to ‘hype’. Notably, the Belarusian leader expressed a similar idea and added:

“No one will die from coronavirus in our country. I publicly declare this. This is my firm belief, based on an analysis of not only past years. We already have experience this year. And, based on the experiences of China, America, Europe, we see how to act. We have already found combinations of drugs to save people. Therefore, we will not just deal with each person, but fight. And if a person doesn’t give up, they will surely recover.”

Over the past month, his voicing misleading information and victimblaming have repeatedly provoked public outrage and caused social media storms. If the Belarusian autorities continue denying the danger of the COVID-19 outbreak and sitting idle, Alyaksandr Lukashenka may lose people’s trust and electoral support on the eve of the presidential elections in August, 2020.

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