The Honorable David Malpass
President of the World Bank Group:
Dear Mr. Malpass,
Belarus Freedom Forum, a US-based organization of Belarusian-Americans and Belarusians living in the United States, is contacting you regarding the Belarus Emergency Covid Response Project by the World Bank (ID #P173828). Under the terms of this project, the Republic of Belarus is to receive a loan of 98.5 million USD. Part of the loan has already been disbursed. We urge the World Bank to reconsider the terms of the loan and suspend any future disbursements until the government of Belarus proves its ability to manage the crisis and provide valid data.
Belarus Freedom Forum has gathered overwhelming evidence of the COVID-19 crisis mismanagement by the Belarusian authorities since the beginning of the pandemic based on a mix of official data, statements by government officials, media reports, and anecdotal accounts from healthcare providers and patients.
The authorities intentionally manipulate and misrepresent COVID-19 data. The official COVID-19 case and death counts are widely considered false. The National Statistical Committee (also known as Belstat) stopped providing mortality data in May 2020. This unprecedented decision aims to prevent the calculation of the excess death rate, which, according to researchers, implies a COVID-19 death rate up to 15 times higher than the official one. In November 2020, the Ministry of Health hindered efficient COVID-19 diagnostics by banning private healthcare centers from administering voluntary PCR tests for COVID-19. The Ministry only partially reversed this arbitrary decision in January 2021, severely capping the testing capacity of private healthcare centers and undermining their competitiveness. Healthcare providers and patients allege that state-owned hospitals artificially reduce COVID-19 case and death counts by registering it as a generic respiratory disease or pneumonia.
The government mishandled the pandemic by openly denying it affected Belarus and later refusing to impose effective preventative measures such as a lockdown, mandatory masking in public spaces, and social distancing. Mask mandates were brief and rarely enforced. Instead, the government uses COVID-19 as a political weapon. The authorities curbed the already restricted freedoms of speech and assembly, refusing to issue permits to protesters while simultaneously hosting parades, gatherings, and celebrations that suit their agenda. Travel restrictions prevent citizens from leaving, not foreigners from entering, the country through the EU or Ukrainian borders while travel to and from Russia, which faces one of the worst outbreaks yet, has remained unrestricted. Moreover, the Lukashenka regime is smuggling refugees from the Middle East across the Belarus-EU border in retaliation against the European sanctions, creating a health threat for Belarus and the EU alike. Current and former political prisoners in Belarus report that law enforcement and penal agencies use COVID-19 to torture and isolate political detainees.
Lukashenka’s government is mainly responsible for the lack of resources in the healthcare system, public apathy, and the lowest vaccination rate in Europe. From the beginning, Lukashenka denied the severity of the crisis, promoting misinformation and conspiracy theories instead (particularly by first denying the problem, then saying that taking a sauna, consuming vodka, or riding a tractor are various COVID-19 cures). The authorities' refusal to impose stricter measures resulted in the IMF denying Belarus' request for an emergency COVID-19 loan. Moreover, the government cracked down on grassroots organizers, who provided healthcare workers with PPE and other resources during the first wave of COVID-19. The government also unleashed an attack on healthcare workers who voiced their dissent after the fraudulent 2020 presidential election, causing a brain drain and understaffing an already strained system. Besides political censorship, healthcare workers face repercussions for publicly denouncing the official COVID-19 statistics or disclosing the lack of resources such as PPE, hospital beds, and oxygen. Officials remain defiant and refuse to accept responsibility for, or even acknowledge, this ongoing crisis of their creation.
Any lending to the government of Belarus must be contingent on it agreeing to outside monitoring and providing reliable COVID-19 statistics to the World Bank and the public alike. Additionally, the authorities must end political pressure on healthcare providers and the censorship of speech and release currently imprisoned healthcare workers and medical students recognized as prisoners of conscience.
Belarus Freedom Forum
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