Playing accordion in front of dummy football fans in Brest, Belarus as the country's championship continues despite the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo by SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images.

Playing accordion in front of dummy football fans in Brest, Belarus as the country's championship continues despite the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo by SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images.

Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, few countries have chosen to ignore social distancing recommendations. But, even among those states which have, the Belarusian official response to its epidemic remains unique.

President Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s statements that vodka, sauna and tractors are protecting Belarusians from coronavirus attracted amused attention in international media. Lukashenka also described other societies’ response to COVID-19 as ‘a massive psychosis’.

Although Lukashenka is notorious for his awkward style of public communication, the fact that Belarus is refusing to impose comprehensive confinement measures is of concern. Belarusians continue to work, play football and socialise.

Lukashenka, himself playing ice hockey in front of state cameras, claims it is the best way to stay healthy. Belarusian authorities clearly appear to be in denial – and this could have dire humanitarian consequences.

From denial to half measures

Belarus actually has one of the largest numbers of hospital beds in the world per 1,000 of the population. But in the absence of quarantine measures its health system, already crippled by corruption and embezzlement, is likely to be overwhelmed.

Patients being treated for pneumonia in hospitals have suggested medical staff are uninformed and inadequately equipped. It is claimed doctors are not reporting COVID-19 as the suspected cause of death, either through a lack of testing or for fear of reprisals.

Observers believe the real mortality rate is already well above official figures (40 deaths as of 16 April). Based on an Imperial College London model, between 15,000 and 32,000 people could die under the current mild confinement regime – and such a high death toll would hugely impact the country’s political stability. Citing personal data protection, the Ministry of Health has imposed a total news blackout; the only cluster officially acknowledged so far is the city of Vitsebsk.

Although specific Belarusian cities and some individuals started changing their approach – by extending school vacations or cancelling weddings – such measures remain half-hearted.

Clearly a major reason for such an apparently irresponsible reaction is that Belarus cannot afford a massive lockdown that would freeze its already underdeveloped economy and drive it deeper into recession. Unlike many other nations, Belarus lacks budgetary resources for a sizable stimulus package. But a delayed response might backfire on the economy.

Economic recession has been forecast to amount to at least 10% of GDP. For Lukashenka, who openly challenged conventional wisdom regarding the need for quarantine and isolation, such an economic downturn would harm his confidence rating in the eyes of Belarusian voters, mindful of the state’s mismanagement of the crisis. And it could create doubt within the ruling elite itself, with Lukashenka seeking re-election for a sixth mandate in late August.

Against this backdrop, a radicalization of the opposition-minded part of society is also to be expected, with greater reliance on social networks in the face of official secrecy and disinformation. The expected response of the regime is then likely to be pre-emptive repression. Evidence is emerging that law enforcement agencies have already stepped up judicial and paralegal harassment of dissenters, notably independent journalists and bloggers.

Russia’s initial reluctance to address the coronavirus crisis may also have influenced Belarus. Lukashenka and his administration often react to public health challenges by the Soviet rulebook, reminiscent of the Soviet authorities’ mismanagement of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Russia has unilaterally closed its borders with Belarus and, as bilateral relations continue to deteriorate, this casts further doubt on the viability of the Union State of Belarus and Russia. Pro-Russian media forecast Moscow will be unwilling to alleviate the expected socio-economic crisis, as it continues to reject Minsk’s demands regarding subsidised oil deliveries. Yet the Kremlin might use the crisis as an opportunity to resume its integrationist pressure on Belarus.

China, with which Belarus engaged in a seemingly privileged strategic partnership in the 2010s, was actually the first country to dispatch humanitarian aid to beef up Belarusian capacity to fight the virus.

But Minsk should not expect Beijing to rescue its economy and, unless it commits to more internal reforms, Belarus is not likely to receive much from the EU either. The regime has already applied to the IMF for emergency financial support, but conditions are attached and, even if successful, the funds would amount to no more than $900m.

The government’s decision to take only half measures so far is rooted in the hope COVID-19 is not as bad as foreign experts fear. But, unless the leadership acknowledges the public health crisis and mitigates its economic impact, COVID-19 will accelerate Belarus’s slide back into international self-isolation. If combined with a humanitarian crisis, this will put the Belarusian regime under considerable stress.

This crisis does risk a new ‘Chernobyl moment’ for the authorities, but the population could react more vocally this time. As volunteers self-organise to fight the epidemic, it might become more difficult for the authorities to say that it is efficient in running the country. But the bottom line is Belarus desperately needs money. Whoever steps up to support Belarus financially will also be able to heavily influence its politics.