What can we learn about lockdowns from the country whose dictator told them to fight Covid by drinking vodka?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (27th September, 2020)

As the sun slid from the evening sky over Minsk, clusters of people thronged the imposing entrance of the Bolshoi Theatre of Belarus clutching their tickets for the ballet.

Many had dressed up to attend one of the city’s landmark buildings, a legacy of the Stalin era that was inspired by Roman amphitheatres.

‘We don’t want our theatres closed,’ said Darya, an elegant 25-year-old heading in to enjoy the performance of The Creation Of The World with friends Igor and Nadia. ‘You need art to live a full life, despite anything else that is happening in the world.’

Minutes later, I watched in the imposing auditorium as the large orchestra struck up, five dancers appeared and 800 people sat back to enjoy the show.

Darya is right about the ability of art and culture to lift spirits in dark times. Yet in Britain, as in other parts of the world, theatre doors remain shut with live entertainment among the sectors hit hardest by pandemic.

But things are rather different in Belarus.

Alexander Lukashenko, the last dictator in Europe who has ruled the country for 26 years, swept aside fears over the disease and scoffed at the concept of lockdowns. He claimed the planet was being swept by ‘psychosis’, suggested his people drink vodka to ‘poison the virus’ and poked fun at the idea of protective measures.

The nation’s professional football league played on through the pandemic’s peak as all Europe’s other leagues closed down and countries went into lockdown.

Yet this maverick despot’s bizarre stance means this little-known land – a strange hangover from Soviet times, with huge state-run factories and KGB agents prowling the streets – offers an intriguing glimpse of what happens if a state leaves Covid unchecked.

For the country has ignored dire warnings of doom from some experts but, curiously, death rates from the virus do not seem all that different from places that imposed strict lockdowns.

‘The measures in Belarus, like in Sweden, were diametrically opposed to your country but the numbers seem similar, which is weird,’ said one senior epidemiologist.

Their fatality figures may actually be significantly better than in the UK – whether through good luck or the measures taken by alarmed citizens on their own.

At the very least, Belarus offers an unusual perspective on the pandemic, and although this secretive nation currently in political turmoil could not be more different from a serene Scandinavian democracy, it has shared Sweden’s avoidance of a lockdown.

Lukashenko’s daft actions included denying the existence of viruses as death numbers began to mount from the disease. ‘Do you see any of them flying around?’ he asked in March. ‘I don’t see them either.’

The strongman disdained border controls, predicted the pandemic would pass by Easter, said the first victim was responsible for their own death and refused to cancel a presidential election or events involving elderly veterans to mark the end of the Second World War. ‘It’s better to die standing than to live on your knees,’ he said at one point.

Later, having caught the disease himself, he claimed it was planted on him and carried on ignoring suggestions adopted elsewhere to slow the spread, apart from urging social distancing. ‘In no case stay at home,’ he said last month. ‘Move more in the air, run, jump, play sport.’

Lukashenko’s refusal to accept medical reality fuelled furious protests that followed his blatant theft of last month’s presidential election. Big demonstrations have led to thousands of arrests, brutal beatings and horrifying torture by his security squads.

Dimitri Ivanovich, a data analyst whose mother is recovering from Covid in hospital after two weeks of intensive care, said people had died due to misinformation. ‘There were no public health measures, no help for businesses. People were left alone with the virus.’

Several people I met told me the dictator’s stance starkly exposed his contempt for citizens. ‘Society is more solid than ever before and it started with Covid,’ said Victoria Fedorova, chairwoman of a leading human rights group.

She believes this defiance began with people joining forces to raise funds to buy protective gear for frontline staff. One medical insider told me that 30 doctors have died from the disease; another said all those in his large hospital near Minsk caught the virus.

Officially, there have been just 813 Covid deaths and 77,289 cases in this country of 9.5 million people – among the lowest rates in Europe. State-controlled media bragged of success in contrast with ‘sadder’ data from nations such as Britain with fatality levels about seven times higher.

A far more reliable figure emerged after the government supplied data to the United Nations that revealed 5,605 excess deaths between April and June, when the pandemic peaked, compared to the previous year.

Doctors confirmed such figures. Mikita Salavei, associate professor in the infectious diseases department at Belarusian State Medical University, estimated there have been 8,000 deaths from the virus as the second wave emerges. ‘We are very similar to Sweden in terms of cases and fatalities,’ he said. ‘Our results are not any worse than several other countries.’

Indeed, they may be significantly better than the UK. England and Wales recorded 55,529 excess deaths between April and June, almost two-thirds higher per head of population than the figures from Belarus.

International comparisons are tricky with this disease. There are differences in data collation. Britain is one of the world’s most globalised nations whereas Belarus is more isolated and has much lower population density, despite Minsk’s crowded suburbs .

The two countries have similar proportions of elderly but Belarus has few care homes and far more hospital beds per head of population – a legacy of its Soviet heritage.

Yet estimates based on the infamous Imperial College, London, modelling in March that panicked the British Government into lockdown warned of a total of 66,800 Covid deaths in Belarus by the end of next month without any preventative measures. It predicted a possible 32,000 deaths by October if only mild actions were taken to slow the spread of infection, and 15,000 fatalities if there was strong suppression of social contacts. But the current death toll is actually only about half that.

Officials have found it hard to act independently in this autocratic state, yet some preventative tactics were imposed by local leaders. ‘No one called it “quarantine” but measures were taken,’ said one epidemiologist.

Dzmitry Markelau, a Minsk surgeon, put it more bluntly. ‘The president was stupid in what he was saying. So everything was left to us. Hospitals were repurposed to focus on Covid and people around the elderly started wearing masks.’

Alarmed citizens also started taking their own action. This is a nation with a thriving digital community plus well-grounded suspicions over state duplicity after suffering dreadfully from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Many stories I heard in Belarus were similar to elsewhere in Europe: shortages of protective gear, concerns over surging cancer cases after hospitals were retooled to focus on Covid, and economic carnage.

Bars, beauty salons, cafes and shops all told me that although they stayed open, their takings crashed as people stayed away when infections started soaring in April, and they have not fully recovered. ‘People stopped going on the streets and eating out,’ said Artsiom, a manager in a small chain of pizza restaurants that had to dismiss some staff. His lunchtime sales still struggle as people work from home.

The nation’s footballers may have played on after being told to wash their hands, but fans stayed away. Dynamo Brest filled its stands with mannequins in club colours after attendances plummeted from 10,000 to just 800.

Yet there seem few signs of fear about the disease, especially with mass protests each weekend and most people not wearing masks – as shown by the Bolshoi Theatre’s reopening earlier this month. It closed in April after many performers, returning from events abroad, caught the disease, although they continued rehearsals while halving salaries. ‘We are like happy kids to be open again,’ said Tatiana Alexandrova, head of marketing.

Berlin, a leading music venue in a dingy Minsk basement, was shut down briefly by officials. ‘They closed us because of coronavirus but after a week they did not seem to care so we reopened,’ said director Pavel Yurtsevich. His venue has been hurt by the lack of foreign bands on tour but was preparing for a heavy metal festival on Friday night.

‘We see the UK with its lockdown but it did not seem to solve anything,’ he said. ‘It is all about individual responsibility, and as employers we have responsibility for our staff.’

Belarus is a society filled with mistrust for its ruler, in contrast to Sweden, which has high levels of faith in its officials, yet I found some similarities in their response to pandemic since it ultimately relied on the actions of citizens rather than state diktat.

Last month I reported for The Mail on Sunday from Sweden on its brave approach. I was impressed – despite the shocking failures in care homes that exposed systemic problems, as in Britain, and drove up their Covid death rates.

Instead of constant flip-flopping, Swedish officials sought a sustainable response to the crisis with a wider perspective on public health rather than simply focusing on the virus.

They imposed limited restraints, kept advice clear and consistent, and, crucially, allowed businesses and schools for children under 16 to stay open. ‘We see the UK with its lockdown but it did not seem to solve anything,’ he said. ‘It is all about individual responsibility, and as employers we have responsibility for our staff.’

Belarus is a society filled with mistrust for its ruler, in contrast to Sweden, which has high levels of faith in its officials, yet I found some similarities in their response to pandemic since it ultimately relied on the actions of citizens rather than state diktat.

‘Lockdowns are not a sustainable approach,’ said Anna Mia Ekstrom, a professor of global infectious disease epidemiology at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute. ‘There must be a more balanced approach that targets protection of those most at risk without the colossal collateral damage we are seeing from interventions such as school closures, business shutdowns and interruptions in health services.’

She said Sweden, like other European countries, was now seeing lower death rates than previous years following the deaths of so many vulnerable old people in March and April.

Meanwhile, greater testing was exposing more cases in younger age groups. ‘Do not believe that a vaccine is a magic bullet,’ she said. ‘We are going to have to find ways to live with this disease. For interventions to be sustainable, they must be widely supported. Otherwise we cannot expect people to take responsibility and change their normal ways of life, maybe for ever, and we can’t lock down the planet in perpetuity.’

Interestingly, Belgium, with death and current infection levels higher than in Britain, seems to be shifting towards a loosening of measures after local curfews, mandatory masks and a ‘rule of five’ failed to stop infections spreading.

One Belarusian respiratory doctor at a hospital specialising in Covid told me he was surprised Britain had suddenly abandoned the Swedish model when switching to lockdown in March. ‘It would have been better to continue on that path,’ he said.

Certainly, no sane expert would recommend emulating Belarus’s approach – with outright denial of Covid’s existence from the country’s leader, dismal failure to inform citizens properly of the dangers and disturbing distortion of key data. Yet this troubled state may still offer fascinating insights into dealing with this mysterious new disease.

‘We have seen the same effect as Britain with fewer restrictions,’ said one regional epidemiologist. ‘The laws of epidemiology show that if there are infections, you must try to stop the spread of disease. But you cannot put people’s lives on hold forever.’ 

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