KYIV, Ukraine -- Belarusian authorities on Friday horrified doctors by abolishing mask mandates, less than two weeks after their introduction for the first time during the pandemic and a day after the country registered a record number of new coronavirus infections.
The decision came after Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko dismissed the measures as unnecessary during a meeting with officials earlier this week.
“It’s just over the top to send police to track down those who aren’t wearing masks,” Lukashenko said. “We aren’t the West.”
The mask mandates were introduced on Oct. 9 amid a new wave of contagion. Belarusians had been required to wear medical masks in all indoor public areas, including public transport and stores.
On Thursday, the country officially reported 2,097 new confirmed infections, the highest number so far. Many have criticized the official figures as an undercount.
Dr. Nikita Solovei, a leading Belarusian infectious disease expert in the capital, Minsk, sharply criticized the decision to abolish mask mandates. He described it as “madness” amid soaring contagion, and warned that “officials will bear responsibility for that before law and the Belarusian people in the near future.”
“Clinics and hospitals in all regions of the country have been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and suffered shortages of oxygen and medicines,” he wrote on Facebook.
When the pandemic struck, Lukashenko had dismissed concern over the coronavirus as “psychosis” and refused to impose any restrictions. The country was the only one in Europe to keep holding professional soccer games with fans in the stands while the outbreak was in full swing.
The 67-year-old former state farm director advised Belarusians to “kill the virus with vodka,” go to saunas and work in the fields to avoid infection. “Tractors will cure everybody!” he proclaimed.
His cavalier attitude to the coronavirus amid soaring contagion and deaths angered many Belarusians and contributed to the public outrage over Lukashenko's re-election to sixth term in an August 2020 vote — which the opposition and the West have rejected as a sham.
Belarusian authorities responded to months of massive protests with a ferocious crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police — a repression that triggered bruising Western sanctions.
While announcing the abolition of the short-lived mask mandates, Lukashenko, who has run the ex-Soviet nation of 9.3 million for more than 27 years with an iron hand, earning the nickname of “Europe's last dictator” in the West, added a touch of sardonic humor, saying: “This is the advantage of a dictatorship — whoosh, and a wrong decision is no longer valid.”
Lukashenko's statement came even as daily infections have topped 2,000 in recent days, prompting Belarusian authorities to halt other medical services to allow hospitals to concentrate on treating COVID-19 patients.
Lukashenko offered his own advice to medical workers to avoid hospitals from being overwhelmed, suggesting they should discharge patients more quickly.
“You shouldn't keep people who don't need long hospitalization for 7-10 days,” he said. “If you see that a patient is getting better and no longer needs intravenous injections and other things, just send him home.”
In a further bizarre twist, Lukashenko said Belarus has seen a reduction in the number of cancer patients during the pandemic and speculated that COVID-19 could be a “remedy from oncological diseases.”
He added that doctors first thought the drop in cancer patients was linked to fewer people turning for medical assistance during the pandemic, but claimed that the explanation wasn't sufficient. He didn't provide any facts to support the strange claim, which has caused a barrage of critical comments.
Andrei Tkachev, the coordinator of Belarus' Medical Solidarity Foundation — an association of volunteers and doctors that helps medical workers who faced reprisals from the regime — rejected Lukashenko's assertions as absurd. He also denounced the authorities' decision to abolish mask mandates.
“Lukashenko's claims about the alleged link between COVID-19 and oncology, his statements on the abolition of the mask mandates and reduction of hospital terms cause laughter and tears at the same time,” Tkachev told the AP in a telephone interview. “Doctors understand the absurdity of those claims, but they are afraid to speak out against them for fear of finding themselves behind bars.”
He said that many medical workers who were critical of the authorities have been fired, raising the strain on the nation's health care system.
“The authorities’ careless attitude encourages citizens’ carelessness and exacerbates the catastrophic situation, the scale of which can only be guessed,” said Tkachev, who is currently out of Belarus.
Belarusian authorities have registered a total of more than 580,000 infections and 4,482 deaths. Only about 20% of the population have been vaccinated, with Russian and Chinese vaccines.
The authorities have stopped reporting daily deaths, and Tkachev and others rejected government coronavirus statistics.
“Official statistics can’t be trusted, it’s falsified,” Tkachev said. “Overcrowded hospitals are a testimony of that. Real numbers are several times higher.”
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger in the August 2020 election, who was forced to move to neighboring Lithuania after the vote under official pressure, also dismissed the official numbers.
“People don’t believe the government and official statistics and they see huge lines at (clinics) and hospitals,” Tsikhanouskaya said during an online conference. “Belarus faces the worst wave of the coronavirus, and it’s not ready for that.”
Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic