MINSK – It has been a common sight for the past few weeks, with people patiently standing outside a medical clinic in the Belarusian capital, waiting to get their COVID-19 vaccines. Not many so far: By June 25, less than 4 percent of the people in this more than 9 million country were fully vaccinated.
Belarus has been hit hard by the pandemic, which Alyaksandr Lukashenka dismissed as a “mass psychosis” that could be treated with a shot of vodka, a tractor ride or a visit to the sauna, among other things.
Without lockdown measures, Belarus had high rates of coronavirus infection when the pandemic broke out and has now vaccinated fewer of its citizens than most other countries on the European continent.
And while doctors in often poorly equipped hospitals are trying to contain the virus, many are in the crosshairs of Lukashenka’s political crackdown.
Belarus sparked an uproar in August 2020 when Lukashenka, 66, was declared the winner of a presidential election that millions believe were pinned in his favor. Since then, more than 33,000 people have been arrested, thousands beaten in the streets and in custody, some on charges of torture, several killed and opposition leaders jailed or forced to flee.
Belarusian health workers who took part in anti-government demonstrations that broke out after the elections or who spoke out against official reports of protesters’ deaths and injuries are facing brutal reprisals by the authorities, according to the human rights organization Amnesty International said on June 17th.
According to data from Johns Hopkins University in the US, Belarus had more than 413,000 confirmed coronavirus cases with 3,082 deaths as of June 25, although experts fear the numbers could be even higher amid suspicions that the government is increasing the scope of the pandemic .
While infection rates are high, vaccination rates are low. Belarus has only fully vaccinated 3.9 percent of the population. according to the latest data by Johns Hopkins.
By comparison, in Russia, which is suffering from a surge in infections as the government struggles to get citizens to vaccinate nearly a year after the Russian-made vaccine Sputnik V was approved, around 11 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. In the US it is over 46 percent and in France over 27 percent.
In Belarus Sputnik Light, a single-dose version of Sputnik V, the Approved by Russian regulatory authorities May 6th is now one of two vaccines available.
The other is Vero Cell, developed by China’s state-owned drug maker Sinopharm, which was approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 7, the first non-Western vaccine to receive WHO support.
Sputnik Light, which is also produced in Belarus, is much more widespread than Vero Cell.
Since the vaccination campaign doesn’t really start until April, doctors say they are making an effort to even catch up with Russia, a doctor told the Belarus Service of RFE / RL.
“In Russia, doctors, people at risk, were vaccinated in early December 2020, and mass vaccinations in Russia officially began on January 18, 2021,” said the doctor, who requested anonymity for fear of official reprisals. “And in Belarus the first doctors weren’t vaccinated until January 19th. It went slowly.”
The doctor said the downplaying of the COVID-19 pandemic by Lukashenka and state media, as well as scare tactics with unsubstantiated claims about risks associated with Western vaccines, have created public apathy and suspicion.
“A lot of damage has been done here by official propaganda,” he said. “They didn’t realize the danger of the disease, didn’t see the virus, then deliberately underestimated the statistics, then the state channels inflated the anger over foreign vaccines, told the horror of the aftermath of Moderna and AstraZeneca.”
In the early days of the pandemic last year, Lukashenka refused to acknowledge even one victim in the country of around 9.5 million. He called on Belarus to hold a military parade to celebrate 75 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, while Russia and other countries ditched or scaled back such plans to prevent the virus from spreading.
As the government does little The Belarusians themselves have reported to assemble plastic shields or to sew protective masks and gowns.
In July Lukashenka said he had tested positive for the coronavirus but he had suffered no symptoms and overcame them without hospitalization, which he incorrectly described as the result of “97 percent” of Belarusians who became infected.
Now doctors in Belarus are facing the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination campaign amid the Lukashenka government’s continued crackdown.
“Belarusian health workers have been at the forefront of the country’s human rights crisis, treating protesters with injuries and exposing the government’s attempts to downplay the bloodshed. Many have paid a heavy price for their integrity, lost their livelihoods and, in some cases, their human rights, “said Bruce Millar, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Campaign for Eastern Europe and Central Asia regional office, on the release of its latest report.
“Health care in Belarus, especially in the provinces, is catastrophic. People die because they don’t even get the most basic care, “one doctor identified only as Kanstantsin told Amnesty International. “During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors worked non-stop and received no recognition. Instead, the government is firing dissenting doctors and nurses and threatening many others. “
At a clinic in Minsk, a doctor said medical staff had struggled to reassure people that the vaccines were safe.
“We even came up with little sayings to convince them like, ‘It’s not just any beer or gasoline that is sold everywhere by unscrupulous vendors, but a vaccine that is accidentally made after a test,'” the doctor said who also asked for anonymity.
Outside, in the queue of people waiting to be vaccinated, a young woman complains that the people of Belarus are not being given a wider range of vaccines, especially those not approved by the European Union.
“We were promised that there would be vaccines from different manufacturers and that we could choose,” she told RFE / RL on condition of anonymity, also for fear of reprisals.
“I’ve waited and waited, but now it’s clear that it won’t happen. Not that I don’t trust the Russian vaccine. I think it’s mainly a political issue that it isn’t approved by the European Union,” said she, adding that the upcoming vacation plans also spurred her to action.
A young man who was also waiting for the Sputnik-Lite vaccination said that he too would have preferred another vaccine, but realized that his options were limited.
“Of course I would have wanted to get vaccinated at Pfizer, but where can I get this?”
Written by Tony Wesolowsky, Senior Correspondent for RFE / RL, based on reports from RFE / RL’s Belarus Service