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Fears in Belarus over strongman's defiant virus response

10 April 2020, MVT 19:35
Catholic Christian believers wearing nose and mouth face masks, amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, attend the Sunday service on April 5, 2020, in the town of Achmiany, some 130 km northwest of Minsk, during Palm Sunday celebrations which mark a week before Easter. (Photo by Sergei GAPON / AFP)
10 April 2020, MVT 19:35

As most people in Europe are confined to their homes, life goes on as usual in Belarus where even football is continuing -- though fears are growing over the leader's contentious response to COVID-19.

These people include over 140 Maldivian students, currently pursuing higher studies in the country. Thus far, Maldives' government has not made any confirmations of repatriation efforts to the region.

"When you read the news every day, it's shocking, but we don't have quarantine," said 45-year-old Minsk resident Anzhela, speaking to AFP journalists.

"From Monday kids will go to school again and we'll keep living in fear."

Wedged between Russia and the European Union, Belarus reported coronavirus cases had risen to 1,486 on Thursday for its population of 9.5 million, 16 of whom have died.

The country's long-serving President Alexander Lukashenko has from the beginning made eccentric statements about the coronavirus, including calling on people to fight off the illness by working in the fields and describing fears over the virus as "psychosis".

Belarus has drawn attention to its defiant stance by continuing to stage football matches - the only country in Europe to do so.

On Wednesday, several hundred spectators watched a national cup semi-final and this weekend half a dozen matches are planned.

Belarusian authorities say such unusual measures are justified because all those who fall sick are strictly isolated.

Testing is restricted to those with symptoms and people they had contact with. Belarus has said it can do around 4,000 tests per day.

On Thursday, Lukashenko said in a meeting with the emergencies minister that the country's economy should be the priority.

"All of this (coronavirus) will pass, you can see in Europe it's already passing. But the economy will be around forever," he said.

He previously said Belarus couldn't afford a lockdown.

"What are we going to eat then?" he said earlier this week, commenting on quarantine suggestions.

'Everybody can choose'

Residents of Minsk however were divided over the lack of containment orders.

"The number of infections is growing," said 62-year-old Yelena, sporting a homemade face mask made of gauze. "Masks won't save us, only self-isolation."

Still, masks are hard to find in pharmacies, residents told AFP, even though some places require visitors to wear them.

A pharmacist at the city's Pharmacy No. 3, Olga Orlova, said she gets deliveries of 200-300 masks every morning, but "they are gone by midday."

Some Belarusian media questioned why the government won't even limit mass gatherings and plans for military parade rehearsals ahead of the 75th anniversary on May 9 of Soviet victory in World War II.

Popular news website Tut.By on Thursday said Lukashenko may be resisting restrictive measures to avoid showing "weakness" after dismissing the pandemic.

World Health Organization representative in the country Batyr Berdyklychev on Thursday called on lawmakers in parliament to introduce stricter measures, saying the country is far from reaching its peak of coronavirus cases.

The number of cases has been roughly doubling every three days over the past week.

Some in Minsk however said they enjoyed having more freedom than people in neighbouring countries.

"Everyone can choose whether to take their child to school, whether to go to work," said 30-year-old Inna.

"If it gets to be like in Europe, we won't have any freedom of choice, only fear."

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