Belarus crowdfunds to fight coronavirus as leader denies it exists

NGOs scramble to source equipment after president calls pandemic ‘a psychosis’

The healthcare system in Belarus is being propped up by volunteers and crowdfunding campaigns as the country grapples with a coronavirus pandemic its president has been hesitant to admit exists.

Belarus has attracted international headlines for its delayed response, continuing to host Europe’s only active football league, as the president, Alexander Lukashenko, dismissed the pandemic as a “psychosis”.

“No one in the country will die from coronavirus,” Lukashenko declared publicly earlier this week.

Meanwhile, a human rights activist and volunteer worker, Andrej Stryzhak, has cofounded the #bycovid19 group to crowdfund, acquire and deliver equipment and protective clothing to medics and other frontline personnel, one of many local initiatives by NGOs and businesses.

“Our goal is to make sure this system doesn’t collapse,” he said. “In many places, for instance in Vitebsk [a city in north-east Belarus], we see that there’s a very difficult situation, a critical situation. There are a lot of sick people, and a lot of medics are sick.”

Healthcare workers help a patient into an ambulance in Minsk.
Healthcare workers in Minsk help a patient into an ambulance. Much of the protective equipment available has been sourced by volunteers. Photograph: Sergei Grits/AP

With material shortages worsening, and the black market charging as much as £12 for a single mask, Stryzhak, alongside a team of dozens of volunteers and NGOs, raised more than £100,000 and distributed 27,000 respirators, as well as protective clothing and medical equipment.

“The toughest situation is with respirators,” he said. “If you look at the official government numbers, our supplies make up a considerable part [of the total].”

One doctor in Vitebsk, the site of one of the worst outbreaks, said some hospitals had not been not resupplied to deal with the outbreak, and dozens of medical personnel had consequently fallen ill.

The president’s remarks have stoked criticism that land-locked Belarus, which has a population of 9.5 million, did not adequately prepare.

The country’s health ministry has reported 4,204 confirmed coronavirus cases and 40 deaths, with the number of cases increasing faster proportionally than in many nearby countries.

Volunteers are keen to emphasise that their work is apolitical, adding that the health ministry was increasingly ready to welcome their help. One said there was a growing understanding that “society won’t welcome silence [about the outbreak] any more”.

As the crisis grows, dozens of local campaigns have sprung up to buy and produce medical protective equipment, crowdfund financial support from local and diaspora communities, provide discounted taxi journeys, or maintain nursing support for older people and other at-risk populations. One Minsk organisation, Hackerspace, has used 3D printers to produce medical visors for hospital staff.

“It’s really important for us to move quickly right now, because the disease is spreading in Belarus with unbelievable speed,” said Katerina Sinyuk, the head of the Imena NGO, which participates in the #bycovid19 campaign and helps to crowdfund and direct aid to hospitals and other grassroots efforts.

“This emergency has made it so that if the government acted neutrally before or occasionally collaborated, they’ve now directly addressed us for help,” she said. “There’s a sense for the first time that everyone is working toward the same goal.”

One effort included asking business owners to produce masks locally, rather than buying them from abroad. “We’re all dealing with the massiveness of the task we’ve been given,” said one businessman tasked with making masks. “Everyone is racking his brain about how to manage it.”

Meanwhile, Stryzhak said he hoped the crisis would prove a breakthrough for building trust in the country’s NGOs.

“We’re going to keep working until we see the government has taken the situation under real control and that medical personnel have the equipment they need to do their job without fear,” he said.


Andrew Roth in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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