Virus? What Virus?
While the rest of Europe has been in various stages of lockdown, Belarus is behaving differently.
The old normal
Observing the streets of Minsk, it seems like ‘business as usual’ as if the Corona virus never happened. In the weekday mornings, the traffic is only slightly lighter than in pre-corona days. Buses are still relatively full, and people still shop. Workplaces are generally still open, especially state companies. The football league was still playing and the victory celebration parade in downtown Minsk on 9th May still went ahead, though old veterans were told to stay away. In public, some people are wearing face masks, but most are not.
It is like the early days of the virus in the rest of Europe before a sense of urgency sank in. At that time, there was disbelief: people were initially unwilling to change their lifestyles and adapt to the ‘new normal’. Belarus is still at that stage. Officialdom are denying that there is any need to take any special precautions – though in private they may be thinking differently. Outwardly, there is little sign of any reaction to the virus. My local pharmacy was the only place that stipulated the need for distancing, now supermarkets are following suite with notices about distances. There are token gestures, because most people ignore them.
So, how bad is it?
At time of writing, Belarus’ ranks 13th in the total number of corona virus cases in Europe (out of 47 countries) and 25th in number of deaths; in cases per million inhabitants it ranks 21st and in deaths it ranks 37, the same as Russia. However, these are official statistics. Social and independent media are questioning the accuracy of these figures. People generally either disbelieve official information or ignore it altogether – a habit and sixth sense cultivated in this region over at least a century. Moreover, stories are now appearing in social media from people who note that the official cause of death of their relatives was ‘pneumonia’ or other ‘non-corona virus underlying-causes’ and expressing disbelief. There appears to be more ambulances in the streets these days, or perhaps you just notice them more.
How should we handle it?
Whether or not Belarusians have a right to be cynical about their government’s reaction to the corona virus is an open question. Whether the government has chosen the correct option amongst many available to is also open. In the global reaction to the virus, different, governments have chosen different paths: some have chosen to react with a severe lockdown: others have tentatively implemented specific measures; still others pretend it isn’t happening, while there are those governments that bamboozle the public with a series of contradictory signals. Given the nature of ‘open government and democracy’ this might be unavoidable.
Authoritarian governments have a specific trajectory. They are accustomed to controlling reality within their borders and sometimes trying to do the same outside them. As the reality of corona virus is a difficult thing to control, the instinct is to control the reporting of it to the extent of creating a parallel narrative. This the becomes the main narrative, at least in the eyes of its creators. They key mantra is always, ‘we have it all under control. We know what we are doing’. To admit the opposite, undermines the all-powerful image that they feel they ought to communicate. Above all, they have to avoid showing any weakness. That’s a tough one when you are dealing with a phenomenon that is totally random and almost totally outside the control of man. Even the most powerful man in the country.
In Belarus, we are left wishfully-thinking that the statistics are correct, that the authorities know what they are doing and that the laisser- faire attitude to potential anti-corona restrictions, at least in public, are justified. God help us, if they are not.