Drink vodka and visit the sauna — that’s what Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko recommended for those who have contracted coronavirus. With an economic crisis already pending leading up to mass virus outbreaks, Belarusians would soon find that Lukashenko had no plan for truly protecting and aiding his people.
It began in January 2020 when Russia stopped its supply of crude oil to Belarus; Belarus relies on Russia for “more than 80% of its overall energy needs (“Russia Resumes…”). Putin insisted on closer ties with the country before he was comfortable resuming full energy support, so a limited flow of resources returned to Belarus shortly after the initial cutoff. Lukashenko scrambled to find supplementary aid through other countries to avoid further Russian interference but came up dry as the country’s bank had long been drained (Forbrig).
As COVID-19 then worsened across the world and in Belarus, the people found themselves abandoned by their country. Along with Lukashenko’s suggestion to drink vodka and go to the sauna, he furthermore called the virus “a mass psychosis” (Ilyushina). As Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest, “leaders invent crisis” in order to force their people to rely on them or to expand their own authority (Levitsky & Ziblatt). Though Lukashenko did not invent the virus, he did invent the impending crisis with his ill response, possibly expecting Belarusians to seek his stability in the upcoming election. But the people would not forget the government’s inaction when the presidential election would come in August 2020.
Despite strong advice from scientists across the world, Lukashenko allowed life to go on as usual, complete with stadiums full for soccer games, religious services continuing without a hitch, and even a military parade in May celebrating Belarusian independence (Karmanau). Even when Lukashenko himself had a Covid diagnosis, he said that “‘you are seeing a person who managed to power through coronavirus standing on his feet,’” but Lukashenko was asymptomatic (Ilyushina). The inattentiveness to the needs of the people drove many of them to seek other options in political representation, and that’s when they got Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
With the election just around the corner, an increasing number of Belarusian citizens stood behind Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s only formidable opposition in the impending election. She acknowledged Lukashenko’s poor handling of the virus and remained critical of all that came before it (Karmanau). With the help of independent media, the people could get these messages and receive information not hindered by the interests of Lukashenko (Forbrig). By August, citizens took to the streets in protest primarily in response to the government’s lack of concern for the virus, but years of grievances laid beneath it.
People were protesting as early as December 2019 in response to the possibilities of deepening connections with Russia (“Belarus”). Nobody needed Lukashenko to be Putin’s pet; they needed him to lead. Then as the virus worsened and Tsikhanouskaya garnered more support, there were increasing numbers of opposition rallies. Come the August election, the anti-Lukashenko sentiment was high, but he still somehow garnered some 80% of the popular vote (“How to Help Belarus.”). This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest results that they knew could not have been earned in a free and fair election. Tsikhanouskaya took refuge in Lithuania after her loss, hoping to avoid danger from the Belarusian government against her and her family.
Meanwhile, the virus raged on, and over a thousand people are dead. However, this number is shockingly low compared to the rest of the world — coming in at only .0133% of Belarus’ overall population (Karath). How is this the case with a remarkably inept governmental response to covid-19? The answer is not vodka, saunas, hard work, sports, or life as usual — as the president would suggest. Rather, experts expect that it was the common sense and organization of the people from early on (Karath). People were self-isolating in March, despite contradictory reports coming from the government about masks and social distancing. Crowdfunding campaigns raised some $360,000 for equipment for hospitals across the country (Karath). Belarusians did it for themselves.
International observers have taken note as well. The Annals of Improbable Research magazine awards Ig Nobel prizes each year, a satirical take on the Nobel Prize. On the list of those receiving the Ig Nobel Prize in Medical Education: Lukashenko (“Putin, Lukashenko Awarded…”). Lukashenko was in good and embarrassing company, with his name up next to other world leaders who have failed their people during the covid crisis: Russia’s Putin, United States’ Trump, Turkey’s Erdogan, and Britain’s Johnson. Between these countries, over 360,000 people have died from Covid-19.
But the people of Belarus are still in the trenches. They managed to survive on their own volition, but with these political opposition protests gaining momentum by the week, it seems less and less promising that they can protect themselves much longer without the cooperation, and potentially the assistance, of their government.
“Belarus.” Freedom House, 2020, https://freedomhouse.org/country/belarus/freedom-world/2020, Accessed 22 November 2020.
Forbrig, Joerg. “Lukashenko’s coronavirus election.” Politico, 2 July 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/aleksander-lukashenko-belarus-coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-election/ , Accessed 22 November 2020.
“How to Help Belarus.” International Crisis Group, 18 August 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/eastern-europe/belarus/how-help-belarus, Accessed 20 November 2020.
Ilyushina, Mary and Rob Picheta. “Belarus President dismissed Covid-19 as ‘psychosis.’ Now he says he caught it.” CNN World, 28 July 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/28/europe/alexander-lukashenko-coronavirus-infection-intl/index.html , Accessed 22 November 2020.
Karath, Kata. “Covid-19: How does Belarus have one of the lowest death rates in Europe?” The BMJ, 15 September 2020, https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3543 , Accessed 22 November 2020.
Karmanau, Yuras. “President’s virus swagger fuels anger ahead of Belarus vote.” Associated Press, 7 August 2020, https://apnews.com/article/alexander-lukashenko-belarus-international-news-europe-health-f69598a2b0892925fe6217d9f00152da , Accessed 22 November 2020.
Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. “Subverting Democracy.” How Democracies Die, Crown, 2018, pp. 72-96.
“Putin, Lukashenko Awarded ‘Ig Nobel Prize’ for Coronavirus Response.” The Moscow Times, 18 September 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/09/18/putin-lukashenko-awarded-ig-nobel-prize-for-coronavirus-response-a71481 , Accessed 22 November 2020.
“Russia resumes limited oil supplies to Belarus amid talks.” Associated Press, 4 January 2020, https://apnews.com/article/1bfde0f0a13627c17c1d6ec834b7f919 , Accessed 22 November 2020.
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