Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus, has swatted away criticism of his unorthodox handling of the coronavirus outbreak, even as the World Health Organisation urged his country to change its approach to the pandemic.
Belarus has registered 7,281 cases of the Covid-19 virus – a figure that has more than doubled in the past week – and the deaths of 58 people from a combination of the virus and chronic conditions such as heart disease.
Mr Lukashenko insists that none of Belarus’s 9.5 million people have died or will die solely due to Covid-19, and he has recommended farming, vodka, sport and the sauna as ways to fend off the disease. He has described the pandemic as a “psychosis” that is needlessly being allowed to wreck the global economy.
Schools have reopened across Belarus after Easter holidays, a national "working Saturday" will take place this weekend and the military still intends to hold a May 9th Victory Day parade to mark 75 years since the end of the second World War – a major event that has been postponed in neighbouring Russia.
“Now this coronavirus has turned into politics. Everyone’s looking for a chance to bite Lukashenko and Belarus [because] they’ve broken ranks,” the country’s leader of 26 years said on Tuesday.
The former collective farm boss said heavily centralised Belarus had “preserved the [health] system and put it in order. And so it turned out that we were more or less ready for this infection and others.”
Government critics say officials are playing down the scale of the outbreak and trying to attribute as many Covid-19-related deaths as possible to other causes.
Mr Lukashenko has ensured that restaurants, bars, cinemas and theatres remain open in Belarus, and its football season is continuing with supporters in the stands; on Sunday, the president and his son were among hundreds of thousands of Belarusians who attended church services for Orthodox Easter.
The WHO said on Tuesday the Covid-19 outbreak was now “growing rapidly” in Belarus and urged it to introduce physical distancing measures.
These should include “postponing large gatherings, including sports, religious and cultural events ... introducing options for teleworking, and distance learning for schools ... and suspending nonessential business,” the organisation said.
A member of the amateur ice hockey team that Mr Lukashenko (65) plays for has tested positive for coronavirus, but the president is not self-isolating.
After a recent match, Mr Lukashenko said beside the rink: “There are no viruses here. Sport, especially the ice, this ‘fridge’ – it’s the best anti-virus medicine.”