Opinion: Belarus’ Unique Way Of Fighting Coronavirus Without Quarantine

Belarus is one of a few European countries where neither a national quarantine, nor strict restrictions were imposed to fight coronavirus.

Only here, in the once Europe’s last dictatorship, borders are open and even holding a massive street protest is real. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko explains his position simply – if quarantine is introduced, people will have nothing to eat.

Not everyone can work remotely, one can’t milk a cow online. Paying those sitting at home while others will work will divide the society, the president said. But is it the only reason?

There should be no false illusions. There are no good solutions.

A universal quarantine, or lockdown, is truly an economic disaster. And one can’t argue with Lukashenko here. Some European countries are already discussing the ways to weaken quarantine, even though the virus has not yet been defeated.

The political editor of TUT.BY Artyom Shraibman breaks down key political developments in and around Belarus to help you make sense of them.

Belarus is in a vulnerable position here. The economy has been in recession since the beginning of the year, well before the coronavirus outbreak. The oil war with Russia and the drop in demand for potash fertilizers brought down our exports by almost 15% in January and February.

The ruble has devalued by more than 20% since the beginning of the year. Russia does not give loans anymore, it is necessary to urgently borrow from the IMF in order to pay off previous loans. Unlike Russia or the U.S Belarus doesn’t have such a financial cushion.

In March alone, our gold and foreign exchange reserves decreased by a billion dollars. In such a situation, Lukashenko, not without reason, believes that stopping economic activity in the country with his own hands is dangerous. Especially a few months before the election.

That is a false choice. There is a huge distance between how the Belarusian authorities behave today and national quarantine with curfews and troops on the streets. Between these extremes, there are measures that won’t paralyze the economy, but will at least reduce the speed of the pandemic’s spread.

For example, one can ban mass events, introduce distance learning in universities and senior classes, and keep crowded public areas closed. But the authorities don’t take even these measures. What does this have to do with the economy then? These measures cost almost nothing.

According to the polls, the majority of Belarusians supported these step back in late March, even before the first death from coronavirus was reported. Besides, by canceling Vitory Day parade and its night rehearsals, one can not only protect people’s health, but also save money.

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Since this does not happen, it means that it is not just about the economy alone. It is about the president’s personal attitude to the problem. In his view, the introduction of mass restrictions will show weakness and the fact that the problem is much more serious than he himself has treated it in recent months.

One can not simultaneously call panic in the media the main enemy, and at the same time introduce large-scale restrictive measures. What if someone thinks that the president himself succumbed to panic. Lukashenko has had this attitude to infections for years. In 2009, he similarly described the situation with swine flu.

Then the president said that the media artificially inflated the hype and the global drug manufacturers who make money off of panic are behind all this. It seems that Lukashenko sincerely believes that coronavirus panic is the work of the enemy, and he should keep people calm and don’t frighten them with any drastic measures.

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The problem is that when the main enemy is not a virus, but a panic, it creates dangerous incentives for the entire power vertical. And now, any official or high-ranking doctor who sees that the situation is getting out of control will think twice before demanding the authorities to impose strict quarantine or cancel a mass event.

After all, it is him who will look like an alarmist arguing with the president. In the end, it may turn out that due to the system’s paralysis, fear of escalating panic, we will miss the point of no return. Politically, this is one of Lukashenko’s most risky experiments in his career.

If his bid pays off, Belarus does not become a leader of the region with sad statistics, and does not kill the economy, the president will get out of the situation in triumph. But if events take a different course, it won’t be possible to shift responsibility to someone else. The author of the unique Belarusian way took it upon himself.