MOSCOW — As he headed off the ice after playing a hockey game in an amateur tournament in late March, the leader of Belarus brushed aside reporters’ anxious questions about the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are no viruses here,” said the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, gesturing to the crowded arena. “Do you see any of them flying around? I don’t see them either.”
At a time when some countries, like Germany and Denmark, having tamped down the initial outbreak of the virus, are experimenting with cautious openings of businesses and schools, Belarus is an outlier. It never imposed any restrictions at all.
Restaurants, coffee shops and movie theaters remain open. Last weekend, churches were packed for Orthodox Easter. Professional soccer is in full swing, although the roaring crowds of earlier this month have thinned. In the capital, Minsk, the subways are crowded. Most businesses require workers to show up.
Neither the raw numbers of infections, nearly 9,000, nor the total deaths, 63, suggest that Belarus’s epidemic is grossly disproportionate, although Ukraine with four times the population has fewer reported cases.
And few people believe the official tallies; there is some evidence that the true numbers are being suppressed.
But caught in the grip of an autocrat whom critics are calling one of the world’s foremost virus deniers, Belarusians have little choice but to accept official policy: The economy will keep chugging along, whatever the cost in human lives.
“I wish I could stay home, but I need to feed the children,” Polina Galekh, a 32-year-old single mother and secretary, said in a telephone interview. “It’s scary.”
Long after other leaders abandoned the idea, Lukashenko, who is up for reelection in August, has soldiered on with a policy of riding out the coronavirus like a bad flu season. He dismisses the official death toll of 63, insisting that all the victims died from underlying causes.
“The whole world is laughing at us, but it’s not healthy laughter because people are dying,” said Pavel Marinich, an opposition leader now living in exile. Of Lukashenko, he said, “He went crazy.”
Restricting gatherings is “a very natural, very reasonable reaction” to a lethally dangerous pathogen spread through the air, said Andrei Sanikov, who ran for president against Lukashenko in 2010, and was subsequently imprisoned. “Belarus is having a very unnatural, very unreasonable reaction.”
And experts are predicting it could pay a terrible price.
As in Russia, the virus is thought to have arrived later in Belarus than in Western Europe, with the first reported deaths in late March.
After a rapid expansion of cases through most of April the rate has begun to plateau, according to figures compiled by The New York Times. But, once again, few Belarusians or public health experts place much faith in the reported numbers.
Anecdotally, at least, there is evidence that the actual number of cases and deaths are far higher than what is being reported.
To take just one example, Aleksandr Matveyev became alarmed when his 68-year-old mother checked into to the Vitebsk Regional Clinic in late March for treatment unrelated to the virus and found doctors and nurses going about without any masks or protective clothing.
Within days of being admitted to the hospital, she had developed a fever and hacking cough. On March 30, the same day that Lukashenko said he could not see the virus, she stopped responding to text messages. The hospital later called to say she had died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“All I can say is the head of state created this atmosphere,” Matveyev, a lawyer who lives in France, said in a telephone interview. “He played hockey. He said he did not see the virus. He set the tone.”
For a time, Matveyev grieved privately but said he became outraged when he noticed the country’s official coronavirus death toll, just three in early April, had not budged after his mother’s death.
“The president said there is no coronavirus,” he said, and health officials had apparently obliged by not reporting the death of his mother.
He is still unsure whether her death was counted.
Without a free press or any viable opposition parties, Belarusians have little recourse to challenge the virus response. The Ministry of Health did not respond to written questions about the coronavirus and its policies for dealing with the epidemic.
In the ensuing days and weeks, Lukashenko, who has criticized lockdowns elsewhere as “frenzy and psychosis,” repeated his claim that all the virus deaths were attributable to underlying conditions.
Lukashenko noted that one Belarusian victim was fat. The man weighed 297 pounds, he said.
“How can you even live that way?” he said. “The virus attacks the weak.”
He said the virus also taught a lesson to smokers, saying they tend to suffer worse outcomes.
When a delegation from the World Health Organization turned up earlier this month to recommend precautions that were subsequently ignored, Lukashenko went on television to announce a cure.
“We have already found combinations of drugs to save people,” he said. Those sick with COVID-19 “should not worry.”
Matveyev became enraged.
“He humiliates the victims,” he said. “He says they are to blame themselves for dying. You would expect some sympathy. But no.”
As a gesture to seek justice for his mother, Matveyev filed an all but certainly futile complaint with the Belarusian police accusing Lukashenko of negligent homicide for his mother’s death.
A police spokeswoman, Yulia Zaitsova, said the police handed off the case to a separate prosecutorial agency for state employees accused of wrongdoing.
“We are just following the rules,” she said.
The press office of the agency, the Investigative Committee, did not answer phone calls.
“My mother could have lived many more years,” Matveyev said. “Nothing can be more important than people’s lives. Everybody understands it’s a catastrophe for the economy. But let’s save people first and then work things out.”
A sense of self-preservation has prompted some Belarusians to stay home without official guidance. Some midlevel officials closed public spaces, defying Lukashenko. The city of Minsk requires restaurants space tables apart. Belarus State University sent students home.
“There is reality, and then there are the words of the president,” said Yuri Adamovich, a chemistry lecturer at the university.
As a rule, autocrats like Lukashenko are far more likely to adopt extreme policies than are democratically elected leaders, said Daniel Triesman, a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“The policies of dictators in general have higher variance,” he said. “Democrats are driven by public pressure toward consensus answers and international best practice.”
Lukashenko’s eccentricities predate the coronavirus. For a time he appeared in public in matching military uniforms with his young son, whom he called his “talisman.” He roller skates. His views on the virus are in a sense part of this pattern.
“From the start, Lukashenko and Trump shared a mistrust of the experts who assure us the virus should be fought with enhanced quarantines,” said Artyom Shraibman, director of Sense Analytics, a political consultancy in Minsk. “The difference is that, unlike Trump, Lukashenko has unlimited power.”
Economics also play a role. A dispute with Russia over oil imports left Belarus financially wobbly before the pandemic, unable to afford unemployment payments before the August presidential election.
The risk for Lukashenko of imposing a lockdown now, Treisman said, was to have a healthy but impoverished population rising up against the government next summer.
“Doing nothing may lead to more deaths,” he said, but it might lower the risk of large protests in the lead-up to the election.
“For personalistic dictators like Lukashenko there is no long run,” he added. “They always have to worry about the next threat. Like Buddhists, they have to live in the moment.”