The current wave of COVID is hitting East European countries particularly hard. As of late October, the seven-day rolling average of officially reported new cases has been at more than 1,000 cases per million in Lithuania, more than 400 in Ukraine, and more than 200 in Belarus and Russia. In Belarus, with a population of just over 9.5 million, there are officially more than 2,000 daily infections with a medical system that is severely under pressure. The real figures are likely to be significantly higher.
Belarus has been an outlier in its approach to the pandemic. The country never introduced any lockdown measures, and masks were only briefly mandatory in public places in October 2021. President Alexander Lukashenko declared early on that he is not going to be vaccinated. But more recently he has been claiming that Russian and Chinese vaccines are more effective than their western counterparts. While this suggests a shift in Lukashenko’s rhetoric about vaccination borne out of necessity, above all, it shows how geopolitics now dominates COVID-19 policy in Belarus.
Meanwhile, the vaccination rate in Belarus remains very low: only about a quarter of the population is estimated to have received a double dose of the available vaccines.
At the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, Lukashenko suggested that driving tractors or drinking vodka would provide protection against the virus. This facetious approach was initially met with criticism by the population. A survey conducted in June 2020 revealed that more than half of young Belarusians (18-34 years) thought that the president’s decision not to implement any restrictions on public life was a mistake. Even before the contested presidential elections of August 2020, the pandemic had contributed to an erosion of trust in the state. Independent non-state initiatives began providing access to protective equipment and information about the pandemic in order to fill the gap left by a lack of government action.
In turn, rapidly declining trust in state institutions before and after the August elections made it even more difficult to fight the pandemic. Leaked data analysed by journalists working for Russian TV channel Current Times highlight that the excess deaths from March 2020 to March 2021 alone amounted to 32,000 people, compared to the officially reported number of just over 3,000 deaths in this period.
Low vaccine acceptance rate
The Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin has conducted online surveys with 2,000 Belarusians, which provided access to the population aged between 16 and 64, living in towns and cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants, representing a population of around 5 million people. We approached the same people twice (in December 2020 and June 2021), allowing direct comparisons.
The 2021 round of the survey demonstrates that the acceptance of COVID-19 vaccines is low. Nearly 50% indicated that they do not want to get vaccinated – a figure that is similar to Russia, according to a Gallup Poll of August 2021 that found that 58% of Russians would not get the vaccine.
Our data shows that some 8% of the Belarusian respondents said they would be happy to have any of the available vaccines. A large share, meanwhile, said they wanted to have – or avoid – specific vaccines. People are most likely to accept the vaccines developed in Germany (43%), the UK (30%) and the US (27%). Rates are lowest for the Chinese and Indian vaccines and stand at 20% for Russian vaccines.
The only vaccines approved in Belarus at the moment are the Russian and Chinese ones. Vaccine choice is clearly mixed with geopolitical orientation. Respondents who want a “western” vaccine are significantly more likely to favour closer EU cooperation and support the EU sanctions on Belarus. They also tend to express lower trust in the Belarusian president.
The low vaccine acceptance rate also relates to a widespread impression that people believe they are not not personally at risk. In our 2021 survey, 49% said they were not afraid of contracting the virus. These people are more likely to be less educated men who express a high level of trust in the president. And nearly one-third of respondents indicate that they believe they have already had the coronavirus. This would be equal to 1.5 million infections, whereas according to official data there have been just under 600,000 cases as of late October.
As in neighbouring Russia, the number of tests in Belarus has been low – until late September, fewer than two people out of 1,000 had been tested. Meanwhile, in the UK the same figure is between ten and 15 people per 1,000. So, many people’s perceptions differ considerably with what is really happening in Belarus.
Support for COVID-19 policy
In our survey in December 2020, 45% of people said they were unhappy that there was no proper government policy to counter the spread of COVID. By June 2021 that number had dropped to 35%.
In the meantime, Lukashenko’s own rhetoric had slightly softened. He now states that the decision to wear a mask is a private one. While he continues to say that masks are primarily for the medical profession, he is now no longer rejecting masks out of hand.
Trust in an autocracy
Belarus demonstrates the importance of public trust for managing an unforeseen crisis such as a pandemic. The unwillingness and failure to respond to the initial outbreak of COVID contributed to an erosion of trust in the government’s health policies and the state more generally – a trend that the violence against protesters in the aftermath of the election exacerbated.
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The Belarus experience with COVID demonstrates a vicious cycle. Crisis mismanagement can quickly erode trust in an authoritarian system. In turn, low popular trust makes it additionally hard for an authoritarian regime to formulate a coherent health policy and increase vaccination rates.