Covid-19 Amidst Revolution: Update from Belarus
By Beth Saffer
Although the world’s attention continues to be captured by Covid-19, talk of vaccines, and more recently the US election coverage, we continue to keep a close eye on the situation in Belarus. Situated in the heart of Europe, and along with its European neighbours, it is seeing a spike in Covid-19 cases. But unlike its neighbours, Covid-19 isn’t the only cause for concern for the Belarusian people, as they continue to grapple with mass demonstrations and unrest in the wake of widely acknowledged illegitimate presidential elections back in August.
We support around 500 older, Jewish people in Belarus, many of whom are from the Survivor generation. For older people, who have been ‘unofficially’ locked down (since an official lockdown was never put in place in Belarus) since March, heading towards winter, life is full of uncertainties about the future. Many older people tended to receive some support from children living abroad, but the global pandemic and loss of livelihoods has impacted on their ability to help. Older people are frightened, not knowing what they will wake up to day after day, and how the situation will be resolved.
The political situation has caused a spike in foreign exchange rates which drives up prices across the board, but particularly affecting medicines, household items, and medical services.
Our partner in Belarus is doing their best to support people by running online social meet-ups, and have noticed (especially when a psychologist is present) that older people are sharing feelings of anxiety and stress, which is unsurprising. Many of our clients’ children and grandchildren are taking part in protests, which of course, worries them (protests have been widely met with violent and extreme force and mass arrests continue to take place).
The nationwide switch-off of the internet every Sunday (when mass protests are planned) has already, to a certain extent, become part of normal life. On Mondays it is patchy at best, and sometimes it’s impossible to work at all. This means online social activities are restricted. Our colleagues have already got used to this over the past few months. At least, they say, it is not the most critical thing for older people to have a regular internet connection. The worst moment was at the start of the protests when there was no internet at all, and nobody knew when it would return. This did cause panic among older people, who rely on it to stay in touch with children and friends abroad.
But the socio-political situation in the country is not the only thing to worry about. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 situation is getting worse every day. The number of cases rises every day, even according to official data (which has been referred to as unreliable and not portraying the reality of the situation). Belarus has currently recorded 138,219 positive cases, and 1,166 deaths to date. They are seeing around 1600 new cases and 8 deaths per day. Unfortunately, we are losing members of the community there almost every day. We know that strict self-isolation, and a lack of live communication, is extremely harmful and can cause cognitive decline to accelerate.
Access to medical services has become even more restricted. Firstly, where possible, all non-urgent medical procedures have been cancelled. Hospitals are full, many are being reclassified as Covid-19 wards and hospitals only. Secondly, emergency services are extremely stretched. If the person’s condition isn’t critical, ambulances may not come, as they are simply overwhelmed by the number of calls. Doctors are only making home visits in extreme circumstances.
What the long-term impact of the situation will be, is hard to call. We cannot comment or predict which way things will turn. But our work supporting Belarus’s Jewish, vulnerable elderly communities, continues in the face of the pandemic and political crisis.
The Jewish community are so grateful for the support of World Jewish Relief – not only the assistance we provide, but also knowing that the British Jewish community is with them in spirit during these difficult times.
Pictured: clients receiving activity packs at home through a World Jewish Relief funded project in Belarus.