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VILNIUS – In the fight against the coronavirus, Belarus is not only plagued by poor vaccine supplies and scarce health care resources. The government is also cleaning up health care workers who have spoken out against the authoritarian leadership of Alexander Lukashenko.
Some of them are citizens who participated in the anti-government protests last year, while others have publicly criticized Minsk’s handling of the pandemic. According to the non-profit foundation Belarusian Medical Solidarity, over 70 medical professionals have lost their jobs and eight medical students have been expelled from the university in the past few months.
More than 250 Belarusian doctors have now been fined or detained in detention centers, some of which have been beaten by the security services. According to the foundation, seven people have been sentenced to long prison terms or are awaiting a court ruling.
Only in the past few weeks was an anesthetist in Grodno briefly arrested this month and then sentenced by a court to a fine of around 300 euros for putting a sticker on one of his windows that the regime declared to be anti-government. Two other medical workers were fired for their public activities. Meanwhile, a contract with a well-known gynecologist from Minsk who was arrested after a rally last year and held for two weeks has been terminated.
Vladimir Martov, a former head of an intensive care unit at a hospital in the northern city of Vitebsk, was discharged from his hospital in April despite 30 years of service after repeated criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic. He describes the trend as “getting worse and worse”.
“Almost every day we get information that someone has been fired or someone has not renewed their contract because at some point in their life they disagreed with something the government did,” he said. “It is obvious that everything is political.”
Bruce Millar, Assistant Director of Amnesty International’s Regional Campaigning Office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, also points to a pattern of repression of health workers. “Doctors and nurses are among those who have paid an incredible human price for their professionalism and human compassion,” he said in a statement in June.
The crackdown on medical staff is compounding an already grave crisis: Citizens have no public facilities or trusted doctors to turn to for information about coronavirus vaccines. As a result, vaccination skepticism remains deeply ingrained and vaccination acceptance is far lower than anywhere else in Europe as Minsk struggles to win hearts and minds.
Martov believes that the government started its vaccination campaign as “user-unfriendly”, as a “bundle of guidelines” from the start. No explanations were given as to “what vaccines were used and how people would be vaccinated,” he noted.
Belarus has relied heavily on Russia’s Sputnik V, which has been making the vaccine in its own production facilities with some components from Russia since April. It previously bought 170,000 cans made in Russia when Moscow tried early on to make Sputnik a serious international player in vaccines. Belarus, one of Moscow’s closest allies, was one of the first recipients, along with other regions of strategic interest to Russia.
“Sputnik was enforced in Belarus without medical records – just slogans that Russia is our best friend,” said Martov. “Nobody doubts that Sputnik is a good vaccine, but in the beginning the move was purely political.”
The government has also failed to downplay concerns that Sputnik was launched last year before clinical trials were fully completed, Martov notes. It is necessary to explain to the population that rapid approval is required as an emergency measure during the pandemic “so that people can overcome fears,” he said.
“But we have nothing like that,” he said. “So it remains difficult to promote vaccinations.”
Andrei Vitushka, a doctor specializing in intensive care medicine, also cites a “lack of excitement” about the vaccination. “There are no queues of people wanting an injection. The Ministry of Health has once again failed to cooperate with the population.”
The Belarusian government and the Ministry of Health declined to comment on the story.
The challenge now is to increase vaccination to get closer to the levels of other countries in Europe – especially since the delta coronavirus variant is widespread in Russia. Belarus is lagging far behind in this regard and, according to the Ministry of Health, had fully vaccinated less than 8 percent of its population by mid-July. That compares with the EU average of 40 percent (with 55 percent receiving at least one dose).
In addition to the skepticism, this could also be due to the sluggish vaccine production. According to official information, so far only around 360,000 Sputnik first doses and 180,000 second doses have been administered. The latter is delayed because the production of the second dose – which is made from a different vector – is more complicated. Russian manufacturers of Sputnik are facing similar difficulties.
In June, the Ministry of Health had to admit that there was a lack of substance in the second shot. The residents were then advised to extend the interval between the two doses from the original 21 days to 90 days.
At the same time, the government is cool about the idea of using Western vaccines. His health minister, Dmitri Pinevich, has questioned the merits of ordering mRNA jabs, telling state journalists in May that they are “no better than Sputnik in terms of effectiveness”.
“We’re trying to gather information about how many people would like to be vaccinated [with western-produced vaccines] at his own expense, “he said, citing the problem of high costs.” There are not many people in the country who are willing to do this.
As a backup option, the government is opting for Chinese vaccines instead. It received 100,000 doses of Sinopharm in the form of humanitarian aid in February and another 300,000 in May.
It also tries more obvious PR tactics. From Thursday, the country will be offering foreign visitors Sputnik shots for up to 50 euros per shot.
However, a serious demand is unlikely, said Vituska. Rather, it is a stunt “to show that the vaccination is going so well that they are willing to offer vaccinations to foreigners”.
Meanwhile, the government continues to struggle to control new outbreaks, especially as the Delta variant is hammering neighboring Russia. But here too the government’s credibility is weak.
Lukashenko’s erratic crisis management – he repeatedly downplayed the dangers of COVID-19 by suggesting vodka and sauna visits as workable treatments – was a factor that sparked the massive anti-government protests last year.
Martov believes the ongoing wave in Russia “will come to us safely”.
“We need to prepare and vaccinate more people faster,” he added.
He sees larger clinics and hospitals now better equipped than in the previous year, but warns that “in smaller towns and villages practically nothing has changed since the beginning of the pandemic”.
This article is part of POLITICS‘s Premium Policy Service: Pro Health Care. Whether drug prices, EMA, vaccines, pharmaceuticals and more – our specialist journalists keep you up to date on health policy issues. E-mail [email protected] for a free trial.