According to the Belarusian Ministry of Health (MH), as of April 4, 440 people had contracted the novel coronavirus responsible for causing COVID-19. That number included 41 recovered and 394 hospitalized patients. Five people died; all of them had multiple chronic diseases that were aggravated by COVID-19 (T.me/minzdravbelarus, April 4). The above is a significant but not yet disastrous upward trend compared to the situation recorded on March 27 (see EDM, April 1).
Despite registering its first coronavirus cases weeks ago, Belarus has stayed away from the kinds of strict and far-reaching quarantine and mobility limitations imposed by other European countries (except for Sweden), making it a focus of international attention. On April 1, Deputy Health Minister Yelena Bogdan revealed that Belarus, with its 9.5 million residents, is the ninth country in the world in terms of the number of those tested. She added that, with 38 ventilators per 100,000 people, Belarus is far ahead of the United States, which has only 18 ventilators per 100,000. “Nothing insecure and extraordinary is going on” in Belarus, assured Bogdan (Tut.by, April 1). Meanwhile, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka set July 16–20 as the dates for the 29th international pop music festival Slavic Bazaar, in the city of Vitebsk (Belta, March 27). Regular soccer and ice hockey matches continue, with arenas full of spectators. “Banning something is not our concept at all,” declared Lukashenka with regard to public events, “but we are not pushing people to attend them either” (Belta, April 3).
In the meantime, Russia delivered 10,000 test kits free of charge to Belarus (Belta, April 4), and the US offered the country a $1.3 million COVID-19 aid package as part of a USAID global program (Tut.by, March 28). Moreover, Belarusians themselves have already transferred one million euros ($1.09 million) in charitable donations to the health ministry (Onliner.by, April 3).
Whether or not Minsk will change its ostensibly laidback attitude to the global disaster remains to be seen, but the possibility of such a change is no longer improbable. Moreover, it appears that this possibility is integral to the contingency plan adopted by the Belarusian MH as early as March 16, according to which mobile military hospitals and “draconian” mobility limitations are to be introduced as soon as the number of local COVID-19 patients in critical condition reaches 3,000–3,500 (Minzdrav.gov.by, March 16). The elaborate plan envisages three consecutive stages of fighting the infection, the first of which has already been expended. Additionally, according to reports, Belarusian authorities actually began to monitor COVID-19 as early as mid-January, when only 222 cases were officially recorded worldwide. The measures taken then included epidemiological controls at the airports (Eurasia.expert, April 1).
Regardless of these reported revelations, some sources continue to stoke passions in order to castigate Lukashenka. Thus, Valer Karbalevich of Radio Liberty refers to Lukashenka’s pronouncement that “It is most important that young people not die” (Kp.by, April 3) as an example of utmost cynicism (Facebook.com/karbalevich, April 3). In turn, opposition-minded analyst Alexander Klaskovsky states that, with the growth in the number of COVID-19-infections, Lukashenka’s “bravado” has faded somewhat but that he still heartlessly blames those who died from the disease for not being cautious enough considering their preexisting conditions (Naviny, April 3). Irina Khalip, the veteran Lukashenka-critic, claims that, in Belarus, the government has entirely fled the scene, and only talented and heroic physicians remain (Charter97, April 3). And the Russian tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets lays blame for Russia’s closing the border with its closest ally Belarus on Lukashenka’s contrarian attitude and his pre-election swagger, having initially shrugged off the COVID-19 threat. The same publication also contains an ambiguous pronouncement by Lukashenka’s more sophisticated detractor, the philologist Alexander Feduta: “Lukashenka is a political fatalist. He believes in miracles; and so far, at critical junctures, this belief has not failed him. As my Polish colleague, Wacław Radziwinowicz once said, devils pray for Lukashenka. There is a feeling that they will pray for him this time, too” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 3).
Amidst the widespread coronavirus commentary, some “eternal” topics—Belarus’s preexisting conditions—continue to receive coverage. Those include the persistent energy trade war with Moscow as well as developments around the Russia-Belarus Union State. Regarding oil sales, Russia’s Rosneft recently announced that the state-owned petroleum producer had signed a new contract with Belarus for the rest of the year. It is unclear what price the two sides ultimately agreed to, after weeks of contentious negotiations on the subject. While Belarusian Prime Minister Sergei Rumas referred to a price of just $4 per barrel (in addition to around a $5 premium for suppliers) (Tut.by, April 2), Russian sources called this assertion into question and hypothesized that the overall cost will more likely be within the $15–20 range (Vzglyad.ru, April 3). “Imagine what would have happened if Lukashenka had yielded in December,” exclaims Alexander Shpakovsky, a pro-government analyst. “We would now be buying oil for $65 per barrel” (Facebook.com, April 3). Russo-Belarusian negotiations over natural gas are still to follow.
As for recent reporting on Minsk and Moscow’s long-running Union State talks, the range of opposing article titles on the topic is quite telling: though both were published on the same day (April 2), Klaskovsky’s article in the opposition-minded Belorusskie Novosti declares, “Belarus Is Silently Distancing From Russia” (Naviny, April 2), while a piece in Rossiyskaya Gazeta bears the title, “Belarus Is Not Leaving for the West” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, April 2). Notably, Klaskovsky invokes no new facts to substantiate this alleged “distancing” unless statements like “the Union State is more of a formality than a reality” are taken into account (Naviny, April 2). At the other end of the scale are such statements by Russian ambassador to Belarus Vladimir Semashko that, from 2000 to 2019, mutual trade increased from $9.3 billion to $35 billion; that Minsk has agreements with 70 regional administrations of Russia; that the unification of energy markets is still planned for 2025; that 30 integration roadmaps have been prepared; that 28 Belarusian delegations visited Russian regions in 2019; and so on (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, April 2).
On March 30, it became known that Belarus is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the possibility of opening a credit line to help the country “overcom[e] the consequences of the ongoing deterioration of the global financial situation” (Nbrb.by, March 30). Apparently, life goes on for Belarus, a global pandemic notwithstanding.