News surrounding the Coronavirus outbreak is unavoidable at the moment and the situation is constantly changing, yet the recent reaction to the pandemic in one particular country has raised some eyebrows.
On 13 March, the FA issued a statement declaring that all professional football leagues in England were to be postponed. Almost all other European leagues have done the same, including La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A.
Now you would like to think that this is the natural course of action all over Europe, as measures in reaction to the virus disrupt any sort of large gatherings. Despite this, there has been one exception to the trend.
Belarus’ government has opted not to postpone any sport whatsoever, and the Belarussian Premier Division continues just like it was any other normal football season. On Saturday 28th March it was the Minsk Derby, a game which caught significant attention on Twitter from football fans here in the UK.
One London-based football fan, @marinovpeixoto tweeted: ‘This is one for all football deprived souls out there. The Belorussian league is currently being televised with English commentary for the first time ever. Today, we have the mouthwatering Minsk Derby, aka El Minskico, taking place at 2pm. Bring it on.’
As precautions were taken in the ground, over 1,700 fans supporting both teams watched on in the Belorussian capital. Some fans were pictured wearing face masks, whilst workers were given gloves to wear. The home team FC Minsk took the three points in a 3-2 win against their local rivals Dinamo Minsk, sending them to the top of the table after their first two fixtures.
Of course, with the lack of sporting events available during these uncertain times, there was bound to be interest from fans eager to indulge in any live football. However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of 30 March Belarus had 94 cases of Coronavirus and zero deaths. This rose to 152 by 31 March. To give a comparison, the same day a fellow former Soviet territory, Georgia, had 98 cases. Georgia has been active in its response to the virus, cancelling all flights to China and putting areas of the country into lockdown. The number of cases there rose by 5 on 31 March for a total of 103 cases.
So why is Belarus not prepared to exert similar measures? Why is the country ignoring the WHO advice to social distance? Well, their President and National Sporting Bodies can give you the answer.
Alexander Lukashenko has been the President of Belarus since 1994. His reaction to the Coronavirus outbreak is both stunning and concerning.
If there is one thing certain about Mr Lukashenko it’s that he loves sport. On the same day that FC Minsk and Dynamo Minsk were battling it out on the football pitch, Lukashenko was also in the capital. Though he was not in the office, instead playing in an ice hockey match.
On the sideline he spoke to the ‘All-National Television’ (ONT) station, telling the reporter that “There are no viruses here! You haven’t noticed them flying around, have you?” then claiming that the cold temperatures due to the ice rink in the stadium act as an ‘anti-virus remedy’. Despite the cases of coronavirus in the country being at a far lower rate compared to the UK, judging from his comments it does not look like the leader is prepared to take action against the virus in the future.
Though this was not the first time Lukashenko had addressed the coronavirus outbreak. He had stated prior that vodka and a trip to the sauna would help combat symptoms.
Meanwhile, the Belarussian Football Federation has insisted that all sport shall go ahead as planned.
To compare, on 5 March, the UK had 97 coronavirus cases, with professional football being postponed eight days later. Despite the fact that the two countries cannot be completely likened (e.g. due to differences in population), I hope that Belarus takes similar action if cases increase.
People living in Belarus are at risk as their leadership continues to ignore WHO advice. We have seen first-hand in the UK how quickly the situation can change. Though it is interesting to see a particular league still going, providing light-hearted entertainment, I hope that Belarus can join the rest of Europe in advising its citizens to stay indoors and help save lives.