This Sunday, in Minsk, Belarus authorities will hold a large parade – a jarring sight, considering much of the world is in various stages of Covid-19 lockdowns. The parade will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazis in World War II, during which Belarus endured catastrophic losses. But as authorities have not articulated plans or instructions for protective measures including social distancing among marchers or onlookers, this puts everyone’s health at risk. Some reports suggest university students are being offered various incentives to attend.
By contrast, the Kremlin, which strives to make the victory over Fascism a cornerstone of Russian national identity, postponed its Victory Day parade, as did most other governments in the region that usually hold such parades. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that countries in general “seriously consider postponing or reducing mass gatherings” and conduct risk assessments beforehand.
Belarus, which hasn’t ordered a lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus, has one of Europe’s fastest-growing Covid-19 rates. Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus’s autocratic president, has made headlines saying that hard work on a tractor, drinking vodka, and visiting the banya would keep coronavirus away, dismissing lockdowns as “psychosis”. He’s also made false claims about the virus’s toll. Meanwhile, Belarus authorities, which have a poor record on press and other civic freedoms, have sought to intimidate into silence some health workers who spoke out about the desperate situation in some hospitals and journalists who criticize the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Belarus has cited the economic and social costs as reason not to close businesses, schools, and the like. Nor has it asked churches that worshippers not be physically present when services take place. The government has instead focused on other containment measures, including self-isolation regimes for people who test positive for coronavirus and who have returned from abroad. It also requires workplaces to undergo regular disinfection and keep workers 1.5 meters apart, mandates shops to have protective equipment for staff, bans most work trips, and limits work-related public gatherings. It’s unclear, however, whether these rules are enforced.
Last week, the WHO attributed Belarus’s rising rate of infection to the “lack of adequate social distancing measures” and urged the government to take a range of measures, including closing nonessential businesses and moving to distance learning.
The Belarusian government has an obligation to protect the right to health, including public health. It could cancel mass events or carry them out under appropriate social distancing. Additionally, the country’s authorities should publicly and unequivocally promote social distancing and show how seriously its leaders take keeping people healthy and alive.