Press Club Belarus

Russia, Vaccines and Disinformation: Fighting COVID-19 in Belarus

How Lukashenko’s regime uses propaganda techniques in their messaging around the pandemic

Like many countries around the world, Belarus has ushered in 2021 amidst a second spike of coronavirus cases. As with the first spike in Belarus, the government’s messaging around the threat of coronavirus to its citizens still does necessarily reflect reality. Using the state media as its conduit, President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime routinely minimised and denied the danger of coronavirus throughout 2020, before using the subject as a means to strengthen ties with Russia, especially once the Sputnik V vaccine was on the horizon. As Belarus Press Club’s analysis reports, foreign vaccines have, in contrast, been portrayed as unreliable.

Meanwhile, Russian media outlets continue to work towards consolidating the main Russian narratives in the information field through their reporting around COVID-19: highlighting the weakness and inefficiency of the Belarusian authorities as evidence of their inability to cope with COVID-19 on their own; Western countries as a destabilising factor in the development of the Belarusian crisis, and Russia as a stabilising factor; the "joint" future of Belarus and Russia.

The first spike: “psychosis”

When the first case of COVID-19 was registered in Belarus on February 28th 2020, and subsequently began to spread over the spring and summer of 2020, the government’s response was negligent at best. President Lukashenko described fears around coronavirus as “psychosis” and told his citizens to “drink vodka” to ward off the virus. He declared ice hockey – hugely popular in Belarus – "the best anti-virus remedy", refusing to cancel mass sports events such as football and ice hockey as the rest of the world went into lockdown. On state media in April, he said: “We have already found combinations of drugs to save people”. In late July, he declared: “97% of our population carry this infection asymptomatically,” yet he provided no source for this information. Lukashenko’s irresponsible and inconsistent handling of the pandemic was just one frustration held by many of the anti-government protestors that spilled on the streets of Minsk in May 2020 in the lead up to the August Presidential election; protests which intensified following the election’s “results” and continue still.

Despite Lukashenko’s dangerous misinformation during “the first spike”, COVID-19 rates and deaths remained relatively low in Belarus at that time, prompting the British Medical Journal to ask (in September 2020): “Plagued by political turmoil over ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ and with a president in denial of COVID-19, how has Belarus ended up with one of the lowest death rates on the continent?” The report concluded that the answer was Belarus’ large number of hospital beds, low number of care homes (most elderly people live separately or with family), as well as isolation given the low levels of tourism or business travel to the country.

It is likely that the effects of coronavirus in Belarus have been downplayed by the government and the number of deaths misregistered. “Although the low death numbers are encouraging some experts fear that many coronavirus-related deaths are registered as cases of pneumonia – UN data show a difference of 5605 between April-June 2019 compared with the same period in 2020,” reads the British Medical Journal report. The Belarusian government hit back at these suspicions by claiming they were part of an “infopandemic”. It was methodically suggested within the Belarusian state press that Belarus has chosen the right strategy to combat COVID-19, while other countries have not.

The second spike: A new approach

The number of coronavirus cases in Belarus were seen to once again steadily increase from the end of September 2020. Yet as Deputy Prime Minister Igor Petrishenko told the country on November 9th in an interview with state channel BelTA: “Population immunity to COVID-19 in Belarus after the first wave of coronavirus is estimated at 15-20%”. This percentage represents more than 10 times the official number of cases that were recorded up until this day (107,262) – little over 1% of the population.

After news broke of infections spreading amidst the Danish mink population in October 2020, the Belarusian media once again broadcast misleading and dangerous information. Viewers of the channel STV were told: “Our veterinarians-scientists have been familiar with the coronavirus for at least 30 years. Only under other names. This virus really loves to mutate. This is the main problem. But to destroy it is very simple. Firstly, it can be easily killed by the defense system of the organism itself - this is a strong immunity; and secondly, it is not just that we are encouraged to wash our hands more often. Soap and alcohol antiseptics deal with COVID-19 100%.” A respected expert also told viewers that Belarus already has its own COVID-19 vaccine for animals.

Elsewhere, other stories that emphasised Belarus’ ability to treat the virus began to proliferate. The Belarusian Academy of Sciences announced that they were developing a gas heating system to cleanse the respiratory tract from viruses and "a system for influencing the blood using optical light, different wavelengths to fight microbial, bacterial and viral effects on the body", while "tissue, metallized with silver and copper ions” were presented as effective means for the prevention of coronavirus, despite the fact that no evidence of their effectiveness was provided.

Similarly, according to BelTA, on November 5th, at the (virtual edition of the) Chinese International Import Exhibition, Belarus was preparing to demonstrate an anti-COVID-19 immunoglobulin treatment. On November 15th it was reported that "the first experimental immunoglobulin samples from donor plasma are to be released in December." It is unclear whether it was about the same drug, but no information about any clinical trials was released. Furthermore, according to the channel ETS, as of November 23rd, at the International Technology Forum in Cairo, Belarus presented computer modeling to create drugs against coronavirus. Yet no more details on this matter were ever presented to the public.

Overall, during this period, the Belarusian authorities changed their approach towards tackling coronavirus, which until now had largely involved little regulation of public activities, healthcare after the fact, and a focus on herd immunity. After understanding from experts that reinfection within individuals was occurring, making herd immunity potentially void, they focused on messaging around various Belarusian cures for coronavirus, as well as directing their attention towards vaccines.

“The only option”: Russian vaccine versus foreign vaccine

When on October 1st, news appeared on state TV channels about the start of research on a Russian vaccine on 100 Belarusian volunteers, it was emphasised that Belarus was the first country to undergo such tests since the vaccine had been registered in Russia. A number of reports about the Russian vaccine appeared in the Belarusian state media, none of them mentioning the safety issues around this vaccine that were raised among Western scientists. They omitted the fact that it skipped large-scale phase 3 safety trials. Instead, reports focused on other details, like the high risk groups that the vaccine would protect.

Throughout the past months, the Lukashenko regime has consistently used the subject of its vaccination programme to promote its closeness to “saviour” Russia. Belarusian state propaganda has repeatedly advertised the Russian vaccine and at first, even presented it as the only option available in the world – without mentioning that, apart from Russia, it was not approved anywhere. “The only problem is that the Russian vaccine already exists, and the European one will only be created in the indefinitely distant future," read one report. In November, the Belarusian state media continued to praise the Russian vaccine and explain to viewers that there are no side effects, despite the available evidence that said otherwise.

While the creation of the majority of vaccines developed in different countries (Chinese Sinovac, Australian, and more) was covered in the state media rather neutrally, Belarus Press Club has documented manipulations concerning facts around the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.

When the approval of the Pfizer vaccine in the UK was covered in the Belarusian state media, reports were brief and tepid: “The UK on Wednesday became the first country to approve the use of the COVID-19 vaccine produced by the American company Pfizer in conjunction with the German BioNTech.” It was not explicitly stated that Britain was the first country to urgently approve a vaccine against coronavirus, and that Pfizer was the first such vaccine. Then, on October 22nd, the death of a participant in a Western vaccine trial appeared in a report on the channel PTS: “The pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which is developing a vaccine together with scientists from Oxford, does not comment on the incident [...] and the British university said that the tests will continue, despite the death of the participant in the experiment.” It was not mentioned that, following an independent audit, as well as an audit by the Brazilian regulator, testing AstraZeneca was cleared to continue. It is important to note here that one key point that is systematically hushed up in the Belarusian state media is the transparency of Western testing processes.

As for the price of vaccines, while the Russian Sputnik V is presented in the Belarusian state media as the cheapest option, with a selling price of about $10, it was not reported that the cost of the AstraZeneca vaccine was 5 euros, and that the Oxford vaccine project is non-commercial, the technology to be made available to allow mass production at a low cost. At a meeting between Lukashenko and staff of the 6th Clinical Hospital in Minsk, the topic of the production of the Russian vaccine in Belarus was favourably associated with the issue of “big money” and “profit sharing”, as reported by CTB on November 27th. On December 14th, Lukashenko raised contrary concerns about Western COVID-19 vaccines: “What worries me about this vaccine is a fight for money. Billions of dollars are spinning in this, and everyone began to fight for this money, sometimes neglecting the responsibility for the vaccine and those people who are in trials.”

Repeatedly, the safety of the Russian vaccine was exaggerated and mention of side effects was omitted (omissions a powerful tool for Belarusian state propaganda, along with manipulations of fact). Meanwhile the lack of safety in foreign vaccines was emphasised, framed as part of a negligent and greed-fuelled race to the finish line. Belarusian media’s reportage of coronavirus is a narrative that has morphed over time, yet threads can be traced through the coverage: namely the portrayal of Belarus as triumphantly handling the pandemic, and Russia – in providing the Sputnik V vaccine – offering a roadmap for the future. As anti-government and pro-democracy protests continue in Belarus, ongoing misinformation around coronavirus from the media seeks to reinforce Lukashenko’s leadership and Russia’s allyship, at the cost of Belarusian citizens’ access to reliable – and potentially life-saving – information about the pandemic.