By Andrei Makhovsky
MINSK (Reuters) – Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said on Monday nobody would die from the coronavirus in his country and again rejected any need for the strict lockdown measures adopted by most countries to contain the spread of the pandemic.
It was the latest show of defiance by the strongman leader, who has dismissed worries about the disease as a “psychosis” and variously suggested drinking vodka, going to saunas and driving tractors to fight the virus.
In stark contrast to other European countries, Belarus has kept its borders open and even allowed soccer matches in the national league to be played in front of spectators.
Its churches have also remained open in the run-up to Orthodox Easter on April 19.
“No one will die of coronavirus in our country. I publicly declare this,” Lukashenko said. “We have already found combinations of drugs to save people.”
The health ministry has reported 2,919 confirmed coronavirus cases and 29 deaths in Belarus. But Lukashenko said the fatalities were the result of underlying health conditions in the patients, such as heart disease and diabetes.
“Therefore, I say that not a single person died purely from the coronavirus.”
He also encouraged people to maintain a positive attitude.
“If a person stays positive, they will be healthy,” said Lukashenko, as quoted by the BelTA state agency.
His comments came after a World Health Organisation mission on Saturday said Belarus should introduce new measures to fight the pandemic, which was entering a “concerning” new phase in the eastern European country of nine million people.
Lukashenko has repeatedly said he is more concerned about the state of the economy than the virus.
But without waiting for strict action from the authorities, many Belarusians have adopted their own self-isolation measures to avoid catching the disease.
The number of passengers on the Minsk metro fell by a quarter in March. According to surveys conducted by business associations in early April, restaurant revenue in March fell by 80%, and the sales of non-food items by 20%.
The health ministry has encouraged citizens to reduce their social contact but the state-owned media has ridiculed concerns about the disease.
One pundit recently said “the time has come to prove that Belarus is not a hysterical young lady who covers her face with a mask”.
Lukashenko said the turning point in the battle against the coronavirus would come a week after Orthodox Easter.
He has continued to play ice hockey in front of spectators. At the weekend, his team won an amateur tournament for the 11th time.
(Editing by Matthias Williams and Gareth Jones)