MINSK – More than 2 million Belarusians, including doctors and nurses, took part in a government-decreed national day of civic labor Saturday despite worries about the country's sharply rising coronavirus infections.
The work, including painting, tree-planting and general clean-ups, was ordered by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has dismissed concerns about the virus even though Belarus has recorded more cases than neighboring Ukraine, a county with four times as many people.
Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, has retained many Soviet-era practices during his quarter-century in power, including the day of civic labor — known as a “subbotnik” from the Russian word for Saturday.
“Subbotnik is the good that we took from the Soviet period, that’s the whole ideology,” Lukashenko said as he helped plant trees in southern Belarus.
The Belarusian government has not imposed social-distancing requirements or restricted public activities in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Of the hundreds of people working along with the president, none were seen wearing masks.
The government said late Saturday that a total of 2.3 million people took part, about a quarter of the country's population.
The subbotnik order called for participation by all state employees — state enterprises and services account for about 55% of Belarus' workforce — although doctors and nurses were given the option of forfeiting some of their wages, a loss of about $3 for a doctor.
Nurse Nina Yegorova chose to work.
“No one protests, although everyone understands the absurdity of this situation,” Yegorova said while she and her colleagues painted buildings at a hospital near Minsk, Belarus' capital.
“After mass prayers in the churches on Easter, we got an outbreak of the virus. Now there will be another wave, although there are already not enough beds in the hospital,” she said.
Belarus reported 817 new virus cases Saturday, the country's highest single-day increase. It has reported a total of 9,590 confirmed infections and 67 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University tally.
Andrei Kravchuk, a 27-year-old local official, saw nothing to fear as he planted a bush.
“I’m not afraid of the virus, and common work in the fresh air helps strengthen immunity and defeat the disease,” he said.
Independent trade unions called for a boycott of the subbotnik and complained to the International Labor Organization about the use of forced labor.
“The government neglects the health and life of its citizens, satisfies its own ambitions and forces hundreds of thousands of people to go on a cleanup during a pandemic,” said Alexander Yaroshuk, head of the Belarusian Congress of Independent Trade Unions.
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