With the Belarusian government denying there was a problem after the pandemic hit, volunteers stepped in to supply vital protective gear.
During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Belarusian doctors faced drastic shortages of personal protective equipment and other supplies. As the government continued to downplay the seriousness of the situation, volunteer initiatives stepped in, making a vital, but still unacknowledged contribution to public health.
The State of Denial
During the first wave of the pandemic in the spring and summer, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka imposed no restrictions to halt the spread of the coronavirus despite the sharply rising rate of infection. He kept on referring to the outbreak as a “psychosis” and advised people to take such “preventive measures” as drinking vodka, relaxing in saunas, and driving tractors, among other things.
The pandemic kept growing. In May, the World Health Organization warned that the lack of adequate steps to ensure social distancing was driving what was by then one of the highest rates of transmission in Europe. WHO called for the government to shutter nonessential businesses and to implement distance learning.
Nevertheless, Lukashenka continued to consistently deny the virus. On 9 May, Victory Day, he presided over a parade of 3,000 soldiers, watched by tens of thousands of spectators, few of them wearing masks.
Unlike any other country in Europe, sports competitions continued without restrictions. Restaurants and bars stayed open, and on 25 April around a quarter of the population, including the president himself, took part in a “community work day” (a mass volunteer event, as in communist times).
During the first wave, the official stance of the Health Ministry was based on the denial of a pandemic in the country, in line with Lukashenka’s uncompromising statements.
In the meantime, hospitals across the country were hustling to accommodate coronavirus patients. As the coordinators of the ByCovid19 initiative, Andrei Tkachov and Nadia Ludchik, explained, even though the Health Ministry was responsible for supplying personal protective equipment (PPE) to all the hospitals across the country, it couldn’t cope with the bureaucratic complexities in time. ByCovid19 volunteers served as a kind of SWAT team able to bypass the bureaucracy to obtain the necessary equipment.
“By the end of the first wave in July, a lion’s share of all PPE had been supplied to Belarus as humanitarian assistance,” Tkachov said. “Even though the Health Ministry eventually managed to purchase something, it wasn’t very substantial. Most of the resources they allocated went to what they called ‘anti-epidemic measures.’ And what these measures were exactly, no one knows.”
A crowdfunding campaign raised the equivalent of more than $360,000. Volunteers found ways to obtain and deliver over 450,000 pieces of personal protective equipment and 1,500 units of other equipment. The massive solidarity campaign grew into the #ByCovid19 organization: a dozen coordinators and hundreds of volunteers every day from dusk till dawn received requests from hospitals, searched for suppliers and sponsors, and delivered the PPE to all parts of the country.
In a situation with nearly no governmental involvement in handling the pandemic, civic self-organization played a key role in delivering vital equipment to those who most needed it: doctors and nurses. In short order, volunteers organized a robust movement across the country to provide safer working conditions for medical personnel.
ByCovid19 started with an Instagram post that Tkachov, a prominent Belarusian social activist, shared on his account.
“In late March, I started receiving requests from doctors to mention their needs on myInstagram stories. So I did and then started to receive a lot of responses both asking for and offering help. The more I posted, the more I realized the magnitude of the whole situation,” he said. Many who followed his account – activists, athletes, human rights advocates, artists, businesspeople – began to join the campaign.
“The support from both civil society and businesses was immense,” Tkachov said. More than 1,500 people quickly signed up to offer their help. These volunteers were recruited when necessary: some were responsible for transportation, others represented companies willing to help with goods or services.
Apart from ByCovid19, corporations and the IT sector in particular joined the solidarity movement. Minsk’s Hackerspace, a virtual workshop for tinkerers in many fields, found a way to build multi-use face shields using 3D printers. By the end of their campaign in early May, they had delivered 40,000 shields to hospitals along with 1,200 masks and more than 6,500 jumpsuits, according to the ByCovid19 website, which was taken down when the initiative ended last summer.
Imena (Names), an NGO that helped set up ByCovid19, raised funds to purchase PPE for social workers and launched a hotline for the elderly and another offering psychological support for health workers.
Official Indifference, Harsh Reality
Medical staff took the brunt of the risks. Tatyana Salei and Artur Kolyada are anesthesiologists from Minsk and Brest, respectively, who recalled their time working in hospitals in the early phase of the pandemic.
The first patients infected with COVID-19 were diagnosed in late March and transferred to repurposed hospitals, Salei says. The clinic where she works was quickly reorganized.
“There were 1,067 beds, of which 650 to 700 were allocated for patients with a COVID infection. By mid-April, our clinic was full.”
In the face of a new disease, all doctors – surgeons, gynecologists, cardiologists, gastroenterologists, and others – had to become infectious disease specialists, she says.
On her Instagram account, Tatyana posted photos and videos of her daily grind and a typical day in a repurposed hospital to show the challenges doctors were facing and to encourage people to stay at home and be responsible.
“If not for the help of the volunteers, everything could have been much worse,” she said. “I know that small district hospitals had huge shortages of ordinary face masks, not to mention high-quality respirators.”
“In our department, PPE was severely lacking. Thanks to a relative of one doctor we got quality face masks – but only four for the entire staff,” Kolyada says of the conditions at his hospital in Brest. “And the situation did not change with time: over the course of three months we were given five disposable personal protective suits; single-use respirators were replaced as they wore out.”
Kolyada points out that obtaining PPE was not the only problem that doctors faced. “In my department, not only PPE but also machinery for monitoring a patient’s vital functions was in short supply.”
The government’s downplaying of the seriousness of the outbreak also justified hospitals in taking no measures to protect their staff. Some hospitals and clinics completely lacked PPE equipment, the ByCovid coordinators said.
“As for the number of fatal cases, many indeed had chronic illnesses, and even if they had coronavirus, they were not counted in statistics because it is necessary to confirm the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus during a postmortem examination. And it takes time, so the statistics on the dead lagged behind real events,” Kolyada said.
“Since the hospital administration was told not to record a COVID-19 diagnosis in the first place, the official reports indicated a number of different illnesses as causes of death. When according to the official statistics only one person in the country had died [of COVID-19], there were three just in our department, not to mention the whole hospital.”
Thinking Locally, Acting Globally
The #ByCovid19 initiative soon swelled to comprise 15 to 20 active coordinators and hundreds of volunteers in each of Belarus’s six regions and the capital. Some of them were in the public eye: human rights defender Andrei Strizhak, activist Anton Motolko, and photographer Yulia Doroshkevich. Many had prior experience volunteering in homeless shelters, projects for the elderly, and other civil society work.
Volunteers note that while both they and the government had resources to buy needed supplies, the country still found itself in a tough position. With no local source of respirators, Belarus had to rely heavily on other countries, and many of them took measures to restrict the export of fabrics and other materials for the production of respirators.
With the border closed in the spring, acquiring personal protective equipment was especially complicated. ByCovid volunteers learned to navigate through complex logistics to obtain even the smallest batches from abroad. “While the government was trying to come through with wholesale purchases, we were buying everything that was left available,” Tkachov said.
Faced with the local scarcity of needed equipment, volunteers – who were often known to the public or had many contacts abroad – turned to their connections across the world and organized supplies from Canada, Germany, and elsewhere. They also mobilized Belarusian businesses and their international contacts to bring in supplies.
The volunteers’ problem-solving skills especially kicked in when no respirators were available on international markets. They realized that industrial respirators used in such hazardous industries as chemicals, metals, and paint are similar in protection and could also be used by medical professionals. Many of the respirators that were then delivered to hospitals were the type used in the cleanup after the Chernobyl disaster. The use of these respirators is also approved by the World Health Organization.
Fundraising was organized on the MolaMola platform, which is owned by Eduard Babaryka, the son of opposition presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka. Both of them were detained in June and are still being held in pre-trial detention; the fundraising platform has been blocked since June. Since there were no alternative crowdfunding platforms, it became a challenge for volunteers to collect funds, especially in the regions.
To maximize the efficiency of deliveries across the country and communication with hospitals, ByCovid encouraged the creation of regional groups to decentralize the effort. Requests from hospitals were sorted out in the Telegram chats of regional initiatives. Some of the local initiatives still operate and occasionally provide supplies, but on a much smaller scale.
One of the difficulties ByCovid19 volunteers encountered in the beginning was reluctance on the part of hospital administrators to accept the supplies, even though there was a need for them and the doctors themselves filled out the forms. As Ludchik, the ByCovid19 coordinator, explains, no shortage of PPE existed on paper, yet the reality was the opposite. Doctors often feared they might get in trouble for accepting the help.
“In most cases, chief medical officers are more afraid of punishment than that their patients might die. They are worried about not getting their bonuses rather than endangering their colleagues,” Ludchik said. Nurses and cleaning staff are usually older and at higher risk of contracting the virus, yet they kept doing their jobs, she said. Many doctors were forced to either call in sick or take vacation days because no protection supplies were given to them. As she summed it up, it was better to break your hand than to show up at work.
This unspoken distress of medical workers significantly impacted the work of the volunteers. Even at times when ByCovid19 was receiving hundreds of requests for PPE, hospital staff were often afraid to complain about shortages, publicly fearing persecution by the state, volunteers say.
At the outset of the campaign, ByCovid volunteers decided to work closely with the Ministry of Health. “For us, it was important to cooperate with them so we could be as effective as possible. First, we wanted to dispel the myth about the absence of COVID. Second, getting their support would mean that doctors would not fear accepting our support,” Ludchik said. “Their biggest support was the absence of resistance.”
Even though the ministry’s official stance was initially based on the denial of the pandemic in the country, Ludchik believes officials chose to cooperate with the volunteers as they realized that they were not able to fulfill their function and help the medical institutions in a timely way.
“At the beginning of the campaign, we had to deal with resistance from the government since they had no idea who we were and what we were doing. But after they saw the scale of the support we could deliver, they started to cooperate with us directly,” Tkachov says. Volunteers cite overcoming the government’s reluctance as one of their major accomplishments.
The official response to the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak, which started in October, marked a U-turn. Unlike during the first wave, when no restrictions were enforced, for the past three months Belarusians have been living with social distancing and mandatory mask regimes in some regions.
The government had time to prepare for the anticipated second wave and stated that the health care system was ready and enough PPE was on hand to be supplied to medical staff.
Even so, doctors still asked volunteers for help as the number of new cases climbed steeply and exceeded the previous peak in May.
On 9 October, ByCovid19 volunteers announced they would not be resuming their work as the second wave of coronavirus intensified.
“It would be nice for the state to determine its priorities. If there is enough money for water cannons and [crowd-control equipment] then there should be enough money for mechanical ventilators and oxygen concentrators. If there are enough resources to provide a balaclava or a mask for every police officer, then there is money for medical masks and respirators,” the post stated.
Volunteers also noted that currently no shortage of PPE exists on the market, the prices are adequate, and even a factory in Belarus now produces respirators and masks. Indeed, no acute shortages of PPE have been reported during the second wave of the pandemic.
The contribution of volunteers at the time of the first wave has never been acknowledged either by the Ministry of Health or the president. When Lukashenka visited a hospital in Minsk at the end of November, doctors noted that the help of volunteers and sponsors had been very tangible during the first wave, but now this support had almost completely disappeared. Lukashenka responded, “First, and second, there was a lot of politics. A lot of people [volunteers] caught the ‘hype.’ They caught the hype, they posted [on social media] – and everything is fine, nothing else is needed.”
The two founders of the ByCovid initiative have left Belarus and are now in Ukraine – Tkachov after being detained at a protest in August. He now coordinates the Belarusian Medical Solidarity Foundation, which emerged in response to the political crisis and offers help to medical workers.
Many other volunteers, including ByCovid co-founder Andrei Strizhak, also left the country because activists and human rights defenders have become a target for the Belarusian government during the six months of demonstrations against Lukashenka’s disputed re-election.
In recent months, the government has turned doctors from heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic into “enemies of the state.” Like thousands of Belarusians, they are being detained at protest rallies and in “solidarity chains,” given fines, and sentenced to several days of detention. Even the very first peaceful solidarity gathering of doctors near the medical university in Minsk on 12 August was marked by arrests.
Since then, dozens of medical workers have been arrested and sentenced to detention. In a recent interview, a doctor described the inhumane conditions in a detention center, with 12 – later 27 – people crammed into a cell meant for six.
For months, medical workers have regularly formed solidarity chains to show support for their detained colleagues.
Kathrin Yaromich is a freelance journalist focusing on human rights, politics, and investigative reporting. Her work has appeared on RFE/RL and Bellingcat.