Vodka, Hockey and Tractors: How Belarus is Responding to COVID-19

By Dimitri Simes | April 15, 2020 | 10:36pm EDT
Belarus’ hockey-playing president, Alexander Lukashenko. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Belarus’ hockey-playing president, Alexander Lukashenko. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Moscow ( – Belarus is refusing to impose coronavirus-related restrictions now in force in many countries around the world, with the nation’s autocratic president instead promoting unorthodox prevention methods such as drinking vodka and driving tractors.

While much of the world has restricted travel and economic activity in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, life has continued as normal in the small Eastern European country.

Belarusians are still going to work, school, and even mass sporting events such as soccer and hockey matches. The former Soviet republic has also kept its borders open, with international flights arriving at the country’s airports daily.

Authorities are currently preparing to host nationwide celebrations on May 9 for Victory Day, commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has frequently dismissed concerns about the coronavirus, describing it as a “psychosis” and ruling out instituting a national lockdown.

Instead, he recommends citizens fight the spread of the disease by drinking vodka, having saunas, playing hockey, and driving around fields in tractors.

“People should not only wash their hands with vodka but also poison the virus with it,” Lukashenko said during a cabinet meeting last month. “You should drink the equivalent of 40-50 milliliters of rectified spirit daily. But not at work.”

In response to critics urging him to do more, he declared, “It’s better to die standing than to live on your knees.”

State media has followed Lukashenko’s lead in downplaying the pandemic. One television anchor recently declared that “the time has come to prove that Belarus is not a hysterical young lady who covers her face with a mask, but a proud republic of partisan fighters.”

This week, Lukashenko once again urged citizens not to worry about coronavirus.

“No one will die of coronavirus in our country,” he said. “I publicly declare this. We have already found combinations of drugs to save people.”

In fact, as of Wednesday the country’s health ministry has reported 36 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and 3,728 confirmed cases.

The ministry also noted that the number of confirmed cases and deaths were growing at an increased pace with each passing day. Over the past seven days, the number of cases increased by an average of 380 a day, with 447 new cases reported on Wednesday.

(Graph: / Data: Johns Hopkins University)
(Graph: / Data: Johns Hopkins University)

Some have raised doubts about the accuracy of Belarus’ official coronavirus statistics, with the government of neighboring Lithuania accusing Minsk of underreporting – and warning that Belarus could become “an uncontrolled hotspot” for the disease.

On April 11, the World Health Organization said there was “evidence of rapid increase in cases” in Belarus and urged the country’s government to adopt stricter measures.

“Case counts have doubled about every two to three days, indicating the beginning of community transmission,” said Dr. Patrick O’Connor of the WHO’s European office.

Slightly smaller than Kansas, Belarus is a landlocked country of 9.5 million people situated between Russia, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltics.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994, during which time the country was given the nickname “Europe’s last dictatorship.” The Belarusian president has in recent years had several high profile squabbles with Russia, his eastern neighbor and primary ally.

Lukashenko’s advice to drink to vodka as a means of preventing coronavirus has been contradicted by the WHO, which cautioned this week that “alcohol consumption is associated with a range of communicable and noncommunicable diseases and mental health disorders, which can make a person more vulnerable to COVID-19.”

“Fear and misinformation have generated a dangerous myth that consuming high-strength alcohol can kill the COVID-19 virus,” it said. “It does not.”

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