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Protecting oneself from Covid-19: a dissident act in Belarus ?

A country exists where the Covid-19 pandemic is considered a “worldwide psychosis” by its leader, the latest dictator of Europe, the Corona-skeptic Aleksandre Loukachenko. It is Belarus. Schools are open, sports events continue, and commemorations follow, one after the other. Yet the virus is ravaging hospitals there. In the absence of government actions, the citizens are organizing their own and society’s protection. Some quarantine themselves, others no longer send their children to school. Many are ordering masks and putting precautions in place at work. This movement of citizens, #bycovid19, is one of the first to have launched a mobilization to help doctors and equip them with protective equipment. We have interviewed one of its originators, Andrej Strizhak.

What caused you to react? What gave rise to your actions? I’ve been a volunteer for a long time. What pushed me to act in this case was a Facebook post by Maxime Otcheretni, the chief doctor of Children’s Hospital, number three. In his post on March 21st, he called for the Belarusians to remain confined in their homes so that he could do his work. From that moment on, I decided to inform myself. This doctor, did he have everything he needed in order to do his job? I thus discovered that there was a big shortage of FFP3 masks. In trying to find them, I understood that it was going to be very difficult, however I finally succeeded and was able to furnish 300 FFP3 masks to the hospital. At the same time, my friend, Andrej Tkatchev, launched a charitable contribution drive for the purchase of protection material for the nurses and caretakers, and this campaign enjoyed an immense success. We then decided to unite our efforts in order to more easily obtain protective material for the doctors.

Have you had problems with the administration, the powers that be? Do you receive any pressure? The problem of protection material is a subject so prevalent in the country that we are working without difficulty with the medical entities. There is a necessity of protection here and now. Doctors are short of everything and we think that it’s the reason for which they communicate freely with us and willingly accept our help. So we have not met with any obstacles or any resistance. We work case by case, with a chief of service, with a local administrator. They are always different people, each with his own temperament, experience, age and approach. Certainly there exist nuances, some particularities, but there has been no clear and direct interdiction to work with volunteers.

In your opinion, the official information on the propagation of the virus, does it correspond to reality? I’m not an epidemiologist, and I cannot say if this information conforms or not to reality. What I can say with certitude is that in these last few weeks, the Health Ministry has changed its method of reporting concerning the number of patients. It was using a “inhouse” calculation method to keep a record of contaminated and healed people. The reporters, in response to these calculations which were too complicated to understand, were giving erroneous statistiques that the Health Ministry then contested. The situation wasn’t clear to anyone and the ambiance was very tense. Now the Ministry gives out figures using the WHO format: how many cases, how many are healed, how many have died. These figures are better understood, it’s clearer. But the current situation in all countries remains complex and it is difficult to say how many people are really ill, because the malady can be asymptomatic. I will not say then that the Health Ministry is hiding something, but the reality of the epidemic isn’t simple, as everywhere in the world. Who responds to “your” appeal? Who are the people who participate in #bycovid19 ? Very different kinds of people. Workers, bureaucrats, business heads, doctors. l’ve learned that the state university, The Superior Medical Academy, has opened an Internet platform on which doctors in the whole country can have a “consultation” at a distance, with regard to treating Covid-19 and the complications to which it gives rise. They integrated a link with our site, which we absolutely did not expect. This illustrates well the fact that doctors and researchers are conscious that we must unite our forces. It’s fantastic to see! And personally, I work with a dream team! The people who constitute the backbone of our group of volunteers are specialists in the domains of digital technology, business, accounting, publicity and the media. It’s a group of superheros, who can work 12 to 14 hours a day to furnish our doctors with necessary material. I am surprised myself by this capacity to work. For example, one morning I received word that 10 units of oxygen concentrators to augment the oxygen level of patient could be purchased. An oxygen concentrator costs approximately $1,000. We started work on it and the very evening they were delivered to the hospitals in Minsk and were en route for the hospitals in the Vitebsk region. That means that in a single day, we accomplished all the logistical procedures. It’s a beautiful example of the work we’ve accomplished and its intensity.

Currently: The volunteers of ByCovid19 have succeeded in giving to hospitals everywhere in Belarus: 55,000 medical masks of all types, 10 oxygen concentrators, more than 300 oxymeters, 100 frontal thermometers, three tons of cloth for the fabrication of protective medical gear. They have coordinated solidarity initiatives of meals for doctors, and created a fabrication platform for the making of protection screens and a logistical and judicial center for the coordination of volunteers, as well as a cell of psychological help for doctors, which is about to see the light of day. To know more:

Translated from French to English by Sally Gordon-Mark​

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