The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged Belarus to increase "physical distancing" as the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak enters "the community transmission phase" in the country, while authoritarian President Aleksandr Lukashenko believes that the biggest challenge for the nation at the moment is the economic meltdown.
The statement has appeared against a background of growing criticism of the Belarusian authorities, which have refused to impose a quarantine on the country. Earlier in March, Lukashenko told the nations to take to the fields and drive tractors to fend off the virus, and has told his government the pandemic is nothing more than a "psychosis".
The total number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in Belarus, a country in Eastern Europe of almost 10mn people, has grown to 7,281, while 58 people have died, the nation's health authorities reported on April 22.
According to the recommendations of a team of WHO experts at the end of its assessment of the country’s response to the pandemic, the WHO said in a statement on April 21.
"The government has already implemented containment measures – testing suspect cases, tracing their contacts and isolating the sick. It has also placed emphasis on increasing capacity to manage the surge in COVID-19 patients, while continuing with essential health services for chronic diseases, maternal health and mental health. With community transmission established, it is important to complement these interventions with physical distancing measures," the statement reads.
According to the WHO, physical distancing measures list: postponing large gatherings, including sports, religious and cultural events; placing in quarantine contacts of confirmed patients and people potentially exposed to the virus; introducing options for teleworking, and distance learning for schools, universities and other educational institutions, and suspending nonessential business; reducing nonessential movements, especially for high-risk groups.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko said on April 22 that Belarus will not disregard the recommendations of the WHO but will act accordingly to the developments.
"The measures recommended by the WHO should be studied in detail," state news agency BELTA qyoted him asasaying. "But what if they, let's say, recommend us to impose some measures up to the curfew? I emphasise once again: if such a need arises we will impose the curfew, isolate cities, towns and villages. But is the country facing such a problem today? No. Therefore, we will not shrug off the the recommendations, but we must act accordingly, based on a set of recommendations, our experience." Lukashenko added that Belarus has significantly increased the capacity of healthcare institutions, the capacity to produce domestic drugs and medical products.
At the same time, local health system workets have reported serious shortages of protective equipment over the past weeks. Belarusian volunteers were forced to start a crowdfunding campaign with the aim to provide health workers treating coronavirus with vital personal protective equipment.
"We are monitoring the incidence of COVID-19. But we pay attention, first of all, to the incidence of pneumonia, because any pneumonia can be aggravated by COVID-19, as is often the case. This is why the Healthcare Ministry, the whole healthcare system, thousands of healthcare workers need to focus on treating patients for pneumonia. At the same time we should not forget that there are other diseases," Lukashenko added.
On April 22, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda offered Lukashenko help with the coronavirus crisis. "The leader of our country offered Belarus assistance in the form of medical supplies, if needed, because Belarus has submitted its request for aid to the EU" Asta Skaisgirytė, Nausėda's foreign policy adviser, said in a comment sent to the media.
Naused's telephone call with authoritarian Lukasjhenko was the first call over the past decade.
Earlier this month, Nauseda alongside the nation's PM Saulius Skvernelis, and Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius all said in recent days that Belarus was mishandling the spread of the virus. That could make Belarus “an uncontrolled hotspot” for the epidemic, Linkevicius said,