A Dilution of Cement: Belarusian Civil Society, Local Leadership Take Initiative in COVID-19 Pandemic Response

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 58

By April 25, Belarus, a country of 9.5 million residents, had registered 9,590 people who had tested positive for COVID-19; 67 of those infected had died; 1,573 patients had recovered; and a total of 139,000 tests had been conducted (ONT, April 25).

A day earlier, Yury Drakakhrust, an analyst on the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (BSRL), compared the situation in Belarus with that in 21 other countries most affected by the pandemic, using the data set published by Woldometer’s coronavirus tracker. Namely, on April 23, Belarus had 849 COVID-19 cases per one million population. Drakakhrust’s approach was to survey the entire sample and date range in order to identify all other countries that at one point in time had the identical virus contraction rate of 849 cases per million; then, he compared those countries’ mortality rates on that date with Belarus’s 6 deaths per million, registered on April 23. When he analyzed the data, Drakakhrust writes, he found that Belarus’s mortality rate on the day in question is close to those in such countries as Israel, Austria, Norway and Germany, but 15 times less than in the United Kingdom and 6 times smaller than in Belgium. Either Belarus is in good shape, or its health statistics are skewed, he concludes (Tut.by, April 24).

Sowing seeds of doubt about statistics has long been a favored weapon of information warfare. And the April 24 episode of the Editors’ Club—a Belarusian TV program largely devoted to what in the Soviet Union would have been called “counter-propaganda”—forcefully made the case that such “hostilities” are, indeed, presently underway (TVR, April 24; Svaboda.org, April 25). During this episode, the BSRL was mentioned at least five times. Additionally, the show criticized an April 21 Washington Post article titled “The Belarus Government Is Largely Ignoring the Pandemic,” and blasted the newspaper’s contention that “Belarusians [are] promoting social distancing despite [President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s] denials.” In response, the Editor’s Club episode aired Lukashenka’s statement delivered at an April 23 government meeting devoted to “priority measures to ensure the sustainable operation of the economy and social sphere of the country in the global epidemiological situation.” Lukashenka declared, “You cannot go to extremes,” adding, “You cannot stop the work of key sectors of the economy. Life showed, literally a month and a half after the outbreak, that we were right. Now they [in the West] are talking more and more about the economy, about how they will live, and that 350 million may starve. But did I not raise this question point-blank a month and a half ago: What are we going to eat!? And only the lazy did not wipe their feet on me at that time” (TVR, April 24).

“One must admit,” writes veteran Lukashenka critic Alexander Klaskovsky, “that in a number of Russian and Western media outlets […] the theme of the coronavirus in Belarus is presented in a cartoon style. The emphasis is exclusively on [off-hand] statements of Lukashenka: like there is no pandemic, only psychosis created by the media. The rest falls out. As a result, it may seem the authorities and the healthcare system catch no mice at all in terms of combating the epidemic, although this is not so. A number of restrictive measures have been adopted. By the way, Lukashenka in Bobruisk emphasized: if the situation with the coronavirus escalates and measures are needed to isolate people and cancel mass events, we will do so. You may not like the political regime, but many Belarusian doctors who are at the forefront are worthy of praise. And with all its drawbacks, the healthcare system built on the model of the Soviet People’s Commissar Nikolai Semashko, with an emphasis on fighting epidemics, turned out to be far from the worst in the world in force majeure conditions” (Naviny, April 21).

In a way, even more revealing is the recent interview with Andrei Vardomatsky, arguably the most reputable independent Belarusian sociologist, in Belsat, typically one of most Lukashenka-hostile media outlets, working from Warsaw (Belsat, April 20). Vardomatsky shared the results of a COVID-19 online survey, conducted in late March–early April by an international group of sociologists. The poll, given to residents of 58 countries, measured how both their respective governments and societies were reacting to the growing pandemic.

According to Vardomatsky, Belarus trails every other country when it came to the adoption of “stay at home” orders, and Belarusians are eighth on the list when it comes to distrusting the authorities. Nonetheless, Belarusian society is actually within the average/modal range as far as its own reaction to the COVID-19 crisis is concerned. Unlike following the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, for example, when the Soviet authorities deceptively lulled the population for weeks, today, access to the Internet has fundamentally changed the way people receive information, which prevents the current Belarusian government from effectively deceiving citizens even if it so desires. “Society is adapting to the new situation much faster than the state,” observes Vardomatsky, “People themselves sew masks, bring food to doctors, collect decent money on crowdfunding platforms. Under pressure from all of this, official information also changes its tone, intensity and content, and the behavior of the state becomes different. For the first time, the country is ruled by the people, not the government.” Vardomatsky fleshes out this observation: “Health care is operating with a greater degree of independence. By independence, I mean a certain distance between official rhetoric and the actual behavior. The start of schooling went according to the format set by the parents, not the Ministry of Education… The reaction of the power vertical changed. Independent decisions were made at the rayon/district level…” At the same time, Vardomatsky expressed the view that the recent appeal by Belarusian expert Yauheni Preiherman for greater understanding between the government and opposition (see EDM, April 22) was initiated by the authorities. It is not the content of Preiherman’s article that matters, Vardomatsky maintains, but the fact that it appeared at all. This is the “influence of society’s soft power… We are witnessing a dilution of cement” (Belsat, April 20).

Multiple interpretations are possible for Vardomatsky’s eye-opening observations. One is simply to accept his own interpretation at face value. But one could alternatively argue that the strength of the “cement” in Minsk has long been overrated. Whatever the case, Belarus provides a valuable case study for the already well-worn thesis: following this pandemic, the world will not be the same.