Not only are the protests continuing in Belarus, but also the second wave of coronavirus

However, doctors are also being beaten, arrested and fired for actions against Lukashenko

23 November 2020, 08:39 | Aleksei Shumkin, Meduza
Medics protesting in Minsk, 13 August 2020.
Source: Yauhen Yerchak, EPA / Scanpix / LETA via Meduza

Protests in Belarus have been going on for more than three months. Belarusians opposed to Lukashenko are regularly beaten, arrested and fined large sums of money. According to public organizations, there are at least several hundred doctors among the victims. At the same time, doctors are trying to fight the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic: according to the official statistics, there are about 1,500 new cases every day. The doctors themselves say that in fact, the numbers are even higher. Meduza tells how the Belarusian state is persecuting doctors in the midst of an epidemic.

State – coronavirus-dissident

“This coronavirus is nothing but a psychosis, and I will never change my mind, because I have already experienced many psychoses with you, and we know what that led to. I am convinced that this is another psychosis of the same kind, which will benefit some and harm others,” said President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko on 19 March 2020.

By that time, all the neighbouring countries had closed their borders to Belarus because of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, Lukashenko stayed firm: “I am convinced that we are likely to suffer more from panic than from the virus itself.”

Instead of traditional methods of dealing with epidemics such as a mask regime, social distancing and disinfecting hands, the president advised “poisoning the virus with vodka and a sauna”, and “breathing the smoke from a fire more often”. While most countries introduced quarantine restrictions, the Victory Parade was held in Minsk. By that time, according to official statistics alone, more than 140 Belarusians had died of coronavirus.

A little later, news about the death of doctors began to appear regularly in the media. Many cases were documented as ordinary pneumonia or flu. Hospitals could not cope with the flow of patients, the dead were buried in closed coffins, but Alexander Lukashenko persisted: “Nobody died merely from the coronavirus, they died from chronic diseases.”

Now in Belarus, as in many countries, there is a second wave of the pandemic. This time, the authorities have not completely denied the problem. However, the healthcare system is failing, note the Belarusian doctors interviewed by Meduza. Now, maternity hospitals and many city hospitals are being adapted as coronavirus hospitals, a mask regime has been introduced in most cities, but it is almost impossible to get help or take a test quickly because of the workload in hospitals.

On 22 November 1,564 new cases were detected in the country, and in total, since the beginning of the pandemic, 124,000 Belarusians have been infected. The autumn indicators of daily morbidity are already noticeably higher than the spring ones, but doctors consider that official statistics are underestimations. Mikhail, a doctor at one of the Minsk city clinical hospitals [most of the doctors asked for their names not to be disclosed], in a conversation with Meduza, stated that these numbers should be multiplied by at least ten. The doctor explained that statistics are being seriously manipulated: for example, to reduce the number of deaths from COVID-19, doctors are instructed to indicate other diagnoses first. According to Mikhail, Belarus is now close to the Italian scenario of a pandemic, when the virus spread like an avalanche across the country. All the beds in Minsk hospitals are already occupied – and doctors often have to deny admission to intensive care units. Social activists also say that the official statistics are five to ten times lower than real numbers.

In the past three months, work with the victims of security forces has been added to the coronavirus load. Police regularly beat demonstrators and use riot gear at the weekly marches of Lukashenko’s opponents throughout Belarus.

The protesters are also brought to the hospital where Mikhail works. This was the case, for example, after the very first protests on 9-11 August – immediately after the presidential elections.

“Some of the most notable injuries: a 60-year-old man with his heel crushed by a stun grenade; a 40-year-old man with a deep thigh wound, also from a stun grenade; and a forearm wound from a rubber bullet. It looked as if the patients had been in a terrorist attack, earthquake or military action,” the doctor said.

“Employees with such political views cannot work”

The first protests by doctors against Lukashenko began on 12 August, when they started to go out to the streets and join the “chains of solidarity” against police violence. Soon the persecution began. For example, on 12 August the intensive care specialist Bahdan Shylnikouski, who joined a rally in solidarity with the protesters, was taken to Akrestsina Detention Centre, which became a symbol of the brutality of the Minsk police. From there, the doctor was released only in an ambulance – he ended up in intensive care [Shylnikouski has diabetes, and in the detention facility he was denied insulin].

More than 4,000 Belarusian doctors have already signed an open letter to the authorities demanding an end to the police violence, the release of political prisoners and the invalidation of the official results of the presidential elections.

It is not known for certain how many doctors were persecuted. According to information provided to Meduza by the Medical Solidarity Fund (founded on the wave of protests and helping medical workers), at least fifteen people were dismissed for political reasons – among them the rectors of medical universities, professors of the Belarusian State Medical University, doctors and nurses. Among others, the director of the Republican Scientific and Practical Cardiology Centre Aliaksandr Mrochak was dismissed on 27 August – possibly because he had not stopped his subordinates from participating in the protests. Under Mrochak’s direction, the centre was the only one in the country to perform heart transplants.

At least twenty doctors are currently in administrative detention, and more than 150 have received fines since the protests began. The largest number of doctors to be arrested in recent weeks was on 27 October. Then in the “chain of solidarity” on Dziarzhynski Avenue, ten employees of the Republican Scientific and Practical Cardiology Centre and one doctor from Minsk City Clinical Hospital No. 4 were detained at once. All of them received fines ranging from 25 to 30 basic units (180-270 euros).

The persecution of doctors continues. On 19 November, the 20-year-old administrator of the Telegram channel “White Coats” for opposition-minded doctors was detained. Now he is being held as a suspect on the criminal charge of “organizing and preparing actions that seriously violate public order.” He faces up to three years in prison.

Another criminal case was opened by the Prosecutor General’s Office against an emergency hospital doctor, who shared data on the medical examination of the deceased 31-year-old artist Raman Bandarenka. According to the Investigative Committee and Alexander Lukashenko, the deceased Raman had “alcohol poisoning”, but the doctors denied this.

The doctors interviewed by Meduza emphasise that it is not necessary to stand out in some way during the protests to come under pressure; it is enough to simply take part in some action. Anna, an intensive care specialist at Minsk Regional Clinical Hospital, told Meduza that she was detained with a poster at a peaceful rally in solidarity with other persecuted doctors. The police department charged her with “participation in an unauthorized mass event.” The charge will be considered in court on 23 November – Anna faces fifteen days of detention. In addition, after the arrest, the head physician of the hospital where Anna works decided to fire her.

“I was told that employees with such political views cannot work in a state institution. The head physician said that he would look for grounds for my dismissal, although he noted that he had no complaints about my work as a specialist,” the doctor said.

Anna’s colleagues opposed this decision by the head physician. They gathered in the assembly hall of the hospital and delivered an ultimatum: if someone is dismissed on political grounds, all of the doctors will submit their resignation. The threat has had an effect; Anna wasn’t fired.

“If it were up to them, they would put us up against the wall”

Belarusian doctors often join picket lines right outside their hospitals. On 26 October, Mikalai Kozich, a tuberculosis specialist at the Homel Regional Tuberculosis Clinical Hospital, decided to organize one such action. He was detained for fifteen days. For Mikalai, this was the second detention – the first happened on 13 September, when he was in the “chain of solidarity” together with his family. Then the doctor had to serve eight days.

“When we were taken to the court, the police were not very polite: there was swearing and insults. They said that we were fascists, that if it were up to them, they would have put us up against the wall,” Mikalai told Meduza.

In the detention centre, the administration did not allow Mikalai to receive the medicine he needed, and books were banned for all “political” prisoners. He was only allowed to shower once a week.

After the second detention, Mikalai was dismissed for failure to perform his work duties.

Mikalai Kozich’s archive.
Source: Meduza

The chief physician approached me at the police station and said that she was firing me. When I had almost finished my fifteen days and there were two hours left, they put me in the prisoner transport with all my stuff and drove me about two kilometers from home. I believe this was done so that I wouldn’t be met at the entrance to the detention facility. On the first working day after my detention, I was called to the personnel department and given my cards.

Mikalai Kozich – in a conversation with Meduza.

Andrei Liubetski is a famous Belarusian oral and maxillofacial surgeon. On 11 October he was detained at a traditional Sunday demonstration, when the “March of pride” took place in Minsk.

According to Andrei, the demonstrators were surrounded by riot police and people resembling internal security officers with weapons near Zybitskaya Street. Several people with assault rifles ran up to him, hit him on the head and threw him in the prisoner transport. He tried to escape from detention and one of the security officers tried to hit him in the stomach, but Andrei managed to dodge him. He tried unsuccessfully to talk to the police officers in the prisoner transport.

“After a few minutes, I understood that they probably would not beat me and so I tried to talk to them. I told them what my profession was and that I should not be on my knees. Then, one of them answered: “I *** [don’t care] who you are.” When I managed to look around, I saw that the majority of security officers were women. I touched the back of my head – there was blood. One of them bandaged my head. For the rest of the time, we didn’t speak,” Liubetski said.

The doctor was taken to the prison at Zhodzina, 60 kilometres from Minsk. There, the surgeon spent three days in a narrow cell. No mattresses or bed linen were provided, and there were not enough beds for everyone. He had to sleep on a metal bench. “There was a court; I was taken along these corridors to a small room; inside there was a judge and a secretary. I was lucky that all Minsk judges were busy and we had regional judges, they were more lenient. The fact that I am a father with many children and a surgeon also worked in my favour,” the surgeon explained. At the court session, Andrei avoided detention and was fined five basic units (45 euros).

“Riot police officers said we’d be better dead”

Medical students also suffered reprisals. After Alexander Lukashenko had announced that “protesters are deprived of the right to be students,” the rectors of many universities began mass expulsions.

Katsiaryna, a student at the Belarusian State Medical University, told Meduza that back in September students were called to the rectorate to talk to the prosecutor, who told them that participation in the protests was punishable.

Many students were detained on 26 October, when a national strike began in Belarus. A few days later the detained students were told that they were no longer students. According to Katsiaryna, after that many were still allowed to return to their studies, but were warned that renewed participation in the action would lead to final expulsion. After that, several people left for other countries to continue their studies.

Katsiaryna herself was detained on 9 September. “The riot police officers told us that we’d be better dead than the way we are. That we had not achieved anything at all, so our parents were working on a pig farm so that their children could study in the capital. They beat the man in front of us, then brought us to the police station and put us in the assembly hall, where the head of this institution hit me on the head,” the girl said.

Minsk doctors at a protest rally, 9 September 2020.
Source: AP / Scanpix / LETA via Meduza

After that, the student was taken to the detention centre on Akrestsina. The girl spent the night in a cold concrete cell. In the morning, the representatives of the Medical University rectorate came to the detention centre. After that, the students were released with a fine of 25-30 basic units (180-270 euros).

“We were taken from Akrestsina by the university administration. The rectorate told us not to do it anymore, and for the first time generously forgave us,” remembers the girl.

“Battle between the intellect and brute force”

The Medical Solidarity Fund, created on the wave of protests, is trying to defend the rights of doctors. In addition to the open letter, which has already been signed by more than four thousand doctors, they help to find lawyers and pay fines and also draw attention to the persecution of doctors. The foundation works in conjunction with the BYSOL and By_help initiatives, which have raised more than two million euros to help the protesters concerned.

One of the initiators of the campaign to help persecuted doctors, a Minsk doctor, Anastasiya Pilipchyk, told Meduza that there are already 150 doctoral candidates and seventeen PhD holders among the doctors who had signed the open letter.

“I call it a battle between the intellect and brute force. This is unacceptable given the spread of coronavirus infection and the shortage of medical workers. We even had a joke through tears: ‘At the moment, a national medical conference could be held in the prison.’ The level of expertise of the doctors serving fifteen days is very high,” Pilipchyk emphasised.

Other Belarusian doctors interviewed by Meduza agree with her. They note that there is already a shortage of doctors in hospitals to deal with the second wave of the pandemic. At the same time, more doctors are being arrested for participating in the protests. “In Belarus, even before the pandemic, there was a serious shortage of medical personnel, and now the number of doctors has decreased, they have been detained sometimes for twelve days, sometimes for ten, sometimes for eight,” said one of the Belarusian doctors. But suppressing the protest is more important for the authorities, he adds. Meanwhile, the majority of doctors who continue to work and fall ill, also because of a lack of protective equipment, are not permitted to take sick leave or take coronavirus tests, but keep going to work, said Andrei Tkachev, head of the Medical Solidarity Fund.

It seems that Lukashenko is aware of the shortage of doctors. But he again interprets the problem in his own way: back in early November, he openly threatened the doctors who were thinking of leaving during the pandemic to work abroad, for example, to Poland. “I want to warn you: we have no extra doctors. We ourselves need to treat our people. But, following our principle, we will not keep anyone. However, it must be understood that if you leave, you won’t come back, you will work there and earn the big money you left for,” Lukashenko said.