Coronavirus in Minsk, Belarus
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Apr 07, 2020 Update
We Asked: What is currently happening with regard to the Coronavirus outbreak in your area? Please provide as much detail as possible. He replied...
What I know or believe is what I am gathering from daily news updates from two main Belarusian news sources, in addition to information shared in lengthy conversation with friends/colleagues who live here. Some of them have friends or relatives in the healthcare field in Belarus.
CASELOAD/MORTALITY: The most recent figures I have seen are 700+ confirmed cases (with many reports that ill people seeking tests were denied tests due to not fitting the required profile of having been abroad lately or not having the right set of symptoms), 53 recovered, 13 have died. I have heard that at one of the city's 11 ambulance department teams, 1/2 of the doctors (who ride in each ambulance) have become too ill to work. One person who is in a hospital for an unrelated condition, was told by nursing staff that that hospital is full of pneumonia cases, as is happening at the city's other hospitals. The medical personnel fear for their health as there is very little medical PPE for them. Once citizens heard of this, some efforts arose to raise funds and a million Euros were raised to buy PPE and other gear for the hospitals and employees.
COMMUNITY/PRIVATE SECTOR OUTREACH AND FUNDRAISING:: Cafes and restaurant staff started preparing free meals for hospitals and clinic/labs staff. One taxi firm is reported to be offering free transport for healthcare workers.
STAY AT HOME PRACTICES: In the absence of government directives for non-essential businesses to close temporarily, some firms have had to close as customers have shrunken away, meaning revenue too low to stay open. About a month ago, some IT firms started keeping employees working from home, with some other firms following them. Mine, which employees about 2,200 people in Minsk, has had most of us working from home for at least two weeks , keeping only essential personnel at the office. The government may fear that the economy would be unable to withstand the damage of sudden and widespread business stoppage, so they continue to repeat that this requires nothing more than personal hygiene efforts, i.e. washing our hands, not touching our faces and keeping a bit of distance. Now, they are seeing more cases rise daily and seeing the pressure on medical facilities, still insist on allowing people the choice to close or keep open their businesses, including events, concerts, sports games, and a military parade for a national holiday soon. Thousands of soldiers are marching in rehearsal together to prepare in the streets. "Nothing to see here - just carry on." I fear for the consequences beyond the economic ones - the inability of the hospitals to handle the caseload, the funeral services to handle the calls, the stock of medical equipment and medicines and masks for the general population. Only Sweden and Belarus within Europe defy the sensible precautions that this calls for, despite Italy's experience with such nonchalance. It is like standing on a beach, staring at an approaching tsunami and refusing to accept that it will slam into you. Well, that's your right, but govt leaders have the obligation to guide, direct and even push people out of the way of calamity; it is their essential reason to exist. PRICES: Reports are coming in that prices of certain foods (except for those protected and frozen by the govt), as well as masks and hand sanitizers, have gone up quite a bit, and now the govt is suppressing that business practice. I don't notice a price change in local stores, where I see fewer shoppers in stores along with normal amounts of all products. No panic buying at all, that I've even heard of. More people are putting pressure on the grocery delivery online services, though, as well as restaurant delivery services (for the segment of the market that can afford this). Two Uber drivers have told me that all taxi services are suffering from a sudden drop in demand that began about two weeks ago. OTHER FEARS: Perhaps more valuable than masks, the USD and EUR became in high demand once the ruble started dropping against these currencies when Saudi Arabia's oil price war hit the Russian ruble, And if the economy tanks, who will bail it out? Only Russia. And at what price?
AMERICAN EX-PATS: There are very few American expats here. One consular official estimated about 300 in the country of 9 million. Largely, they have ethnic background here or had immigrated abroad, only to return, and are spread throughout the country. I know only about four others, and Fullbright Scolars as well as English teacher trainers were told to return to the USA before flights were further restricted. I have decided to remain as I am about to sign my fourth annual contract with a tech firm, and it hardly seems sensible to enter the USA at this time.
Preparing for the Future
We Asked: What are you doing in terms of preparations in case the situation deteriorates in your location? He replied...
I withdrew my US dollars, started watching to see which countries would still accept foreigners from Europe and which airlines were flying out of Minsk (all other adjacent borders were closed, so there is just one way out - Minsk International Airport's few daily flights that allow for transit through Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris with an onward leg to the USA. So I get daily US Consulate updates about the virus threat, flights still operating (very helpful), and other messages of concern. I wrote to a US consular official whom I've met to inform her that I intend to remain here and I have registered with the STEP program, which keeps US ex-pats on a list so US officials know who is in-country. I have daily conversations with several knowledgeable and connected locals about the situation.
Lockdown & Passing the Time
We Asked: Are you staying home? If so, how are you passing the time?
I am free to go anywhere outside as often as I want. There are really zero restrictions or even advice on this. However, many are heeding their own counsel and staying in. I walk around to feed some street cats twice daily for a few minutes, but nobody is around where I go, so I only wear a mask within my building. I walk to the store 5 minutes away, the veterinary clinic and pet shop 10 minutes away and that's it, really. I also take a walk every couple of days on a rather empty, long street for 25 minutes each way so I get some air and blood pumping. I don't mind staying at home at all really. And I have a cat for company. Local and distant friends and family stay in touch online. It's fine and I could do this for months, if need be. I'd like to bake things fo rthe hospital or ambulance staff, but friends have warned me that they would be too wary to accept homebaked goods, probably.
Public Healthcare & Public Hospitals
We Asked: Are you enrolled in the public healthcare system where you live? Do you feel that the public hospitals are handling or preparing for the Coronavirus outbreak effectively? He replied...
My company will pay for medical care as I am still employed. I have been to the local public hospital for an emergency and to the private clinics for treatment and even surgery. No complaints at all. Everyone is professional and offer very sterile environments. They are efficient, though very few speak English. I think the hospitals, which are largely public, are hamstrung by the government's plain refusal to admit that the tsunami is heading this way, too.
Private Health Insurance & Private Hospitals
We Asked: Do you have private health insurance? If you have private insurance, does this give you access to private hospitals? Are private hospitals or clinics better prepared, less prepared, or the same? Please explain. He replied...
I also have private health insurance to supplement my company's paying for health care. I can go to my office, where there is a company doctor on duty in the daytime. Apparently, she has been busy handling employee complaints of illnesses lately. As for how prepared private clinics are, I really can't say. But the general sense from news reports is a widespread complaint of low stocks and under-protected staff. Sounds like New York City and much of the USA.
Hospital of Choice for Coronavirus Treatment
We Asked: Would you choose a public or private hospital if you needed treatment for Coronavirus? Why? If there is a specific hospital that you would go to in the event of severe illness? Which hospital and why? He replied...
First I would see my company doctor and then she would have to refer me to a hospital for further treatment. In the event of something happening when she was off duty, I would call my manager and ask her to call the ambulance service, where a doctor is always riding. It is a free service.
We Asked: Are you considering returning to your home country due to the Coronavirus? Would this be a temporary move or a permanent repatriation? Please explain. He replied...
I would prefer to remain here. I have a job with good benefits, a good flat, and I don't know that the treatment available in the states would be any better, given the flood of patients they expect. In some ways, I am glad I am here and not in Southern California, where I was visiting family in December/January.
Advice for People Outside of Minsk, Belarus
We Asked: If you live in an area already heavily affected by coronavirus, what advice would you share with others elswhere in the world who may be facing the same challenges in the future. He replied...
We really cannot see the body of the iceberg beneath us due to low levels of testing and a government which refuses to see the crisis. Just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, they are.
How Government is Treating Expats
We Asked: How is the government of the country where you are currently living treating expats during this time? Have there been any changes or extensions made in terms of residency and and other visa renewals, applications and requirements? Has access to public healthcare been eased? Please describe any types of changes (positive and negative) that are taking place. He replied...
I have had no contact with the government at all, actually. None. I will need to renew residency in May, however, so we'll see how willing they are to extend my residence, which is tied to my employment contract - at least under normal conditions. They may find themselves so tested by the onslaught of cases requiring hospitalization, that they have ex-pats leave so as not to add to the strain of their own citizens. Who knows?
Expat Health Insurance in Belarus
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