[Transitions editor’s note: As of today, Belarus has recorded just under 40,000 cases of coronavirus infection – one of the highest per capita rates in Europe. Despite this, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues to downplay the severity of the outbreak. In what Euronews called the largest opposition demonstration of the year, hundreds of people protested recently in Minsk against the government’s decision not to postpone the presidential election scheduled for August.]
Just a few months ago, these people were immersed in their businesses. Today, along with other volunteers, they come every day to the "base" on Kastrycnickaja Street in downtown Minsk to unload cars and put together packages for the medics who are protecting Belarus from the coronavirus.
"The heaviest burden is the burden of responsibility and fear that we won't manage to meet the hopes that have been placed on us. We now have over 2,000 requests for help from all over the country. We have to constantly work in a multitasking mode. I have lost 11 kilos, I feel physically and morally exhausted. My biggest desire is to get enough sleep," fitness coach Andrei Tkachou tells Euroradio.
"I was told that I actually volunteered not because I had an active social stance, but because I had to clean and wash my house! In order not to do this, I just left home to go to the warehouse,” StandUp Comedy Hall producer Dzmitry Naryshkin says jokingly. He too has lost weight (6 kilograms) while working as a volunteer.
"I once came across a video: a house was burning somewhere in Russia, a man was in flames on the balcony, someone was filming a close-up with the camera. You could see how he was in agony, how he wanted to save himself. There's an emergency vehicle downstairs, but the rescuers can't cope with the situation. I suddenly realized that I don't want to stand with a hose downstairs and I don't want to watch, but I want to climb on the balcony and try to help," says Kim Mazur, co-owner of the Peresmeshnik (Mockingbird), Vinny Shkaf (Wine Case), and Ayahuasca bars.
The spacious hall of Ў Gallery, a contemporary art space where exhibitions and cocktail parties were held a few months ago, now hosts the headquarters and warehouse of the civic initiative #BYCOVID19. Instead of paintings on the walls there are signs: "Thermometers," "Boot covers," "Respirators," "Gowns" ... Below them, the volunteers sort packages for the hospitals.
The gallery's lights went out today. The volunteers are working, lighting bags with flashlights from their phones. The door opens, a ray of sun falls on the wall. Andrei Tkachou is here.
"We Have Five Minutes for Lunch and Then We Need to Unload the Car!"
Tkachou looks tired. While he eats, the volunteers tell him what they have managed to do. Someone says a man came to the headquarters and brought a box of cookies for the doctors worth 500 Belarusian rubles – here's the bill. The phone rings several times; Andrei coordinates the activists who work in other cities.
"After the first infection cases began to be registered, I left the hall, where I was spending 12 hours a day, for self-isolation. One day I got a request from a doctor, who said that his hospital lacked protective gear. I posted the information to Instagram, a friend of mine wrote that he was ready to buy everything that was needed. At the same time, 10 doctors wrote – this time directly to me – asking for help. It became clear that something had to be done.
“Together with my friends, we decided to start a fundraising campaign to help doctors. When it all started, I could not imagine its scale. The first purchase was 10 overalls in a building supply shop. And now, if you count all the money that people have transferred through MolaMola to fight against COVID-19, it comes to about 300,000 rubles [$125,000]. We cooperate with the chief physicians of Belarusian hospitals, the Ministry of Health, and the Foreign Ministry. And there's no chance for us to get out of it anymore.”
Finishing the salad, Andrei tells us how his day goes.
"It's very hard. Deliveries, documents, coordination … We just got back from the city gynecological hospital, for the third or fourth time already. We brought them five overalls, gave the documents to the accounting department. Now I'll help unload the car, and we'll immediately go to pick up a ton and a half of spunbond, which was bought and paid for yesterday. Then we'll go back to the warehouse. Within two days, we will distribute it to the sewing workshops, where the protective equipment will be made: some of it will go straight to hospitals, some will come back here, and we will decide where to take it later.”
It's very hard to decide where to take the aid first. " ‘Guys, help us out, we're getting a COVID patient and we don't have any protective gear!’ – we constantly get messages like this. And sometimes the warehouse doesn't have what they need and there's nothing you can do. It is very hard. It's constant stress, a burden, very difficult psychologically.”
Andrei says that in a day you may visit five or seven hospitals and walk 20,000 steps. He apologizes and runs to unload the car. Volunteers take the overalls out of the bags.
"Look, pink ones! Positive thinking! And there are boot covers, too!" The guys look cheerful.
"You Can't Just Come to a Hospital and Say, ‘Here Are the Masks’ ”
"On 15 or 17 March I wrote to Andrei and asked him how to help. He didn't have time for me, he said to write him the next day,” restaurateur Kim Mazur says. "I understood he was at the gallery and just went there without waiting for an answer. Anton Matolka, Dzmitry Naryshkin, and other volunteers were there too. I said: ‘Hello, I want to help and will help.’ That's the story."
Kim says he helps as much as he can. He is used to getting up early, running, and walking his dog. If the weather is good, he'll get to the warehouse. Usually, logistics volunteers can immediately say what kind of help is needed.
"There's always something you can do," continues Kim. "There are girls who do paperwork. It turns out that we have too much bureaucracy, even at the volunteer level. You can't just come to a hospital and say, ‘Here are the masks.’ We have to keep a full account of every penny – how it came in and how it'll be spent. This is to make people understand that the money they donate goes to the right place."
Kim says the situation with COVID-19 is not improving and there are more requests for help, so in the coming days the volunteers will work from morning to night. To ensure that everyone has the opportunity to keep in touch with their family and work, the volunteers have drawn up a duty schedule.
"If Necessary, I'm Ready to Go Anywhere"
Dzmitry Naryshkin receives a phone call from Euroradio during an evening walk with his dog Rocket. Today the comedian also picked up some spunbond and confesses that he is tired.
"It's hard to explain why I'm tired, you need to feel it," he says. "While in the past I used to burn out once a week, now it happens almost every day. I have work-related issues [with] the reality we're all living now. It's also very hard to talk to you when the dog is pulling in all directions."
Dzima says he joined the volunteers right after he closed down his stand-up club when the coronavirus outbreak began.
"I took this decision together with the participants because we did not want to gather people for public events. I heard about the initiative from my friends. I mostly go to Babruisk, it's my father's home place. Somehow we realized that the city is big, and there's not enough feedback. I found local activists who also wanted to help doctors.
“I don't drive, but thanks to Instagram I can find people willing to drive me in 10-15 minutes. I also go to neighboring cities. If necessary, I'm ready to go anywhere.” But in general, Anton Matolka is the person who drives around the country more than anyone else. Last weekend, loaded to the brim, he visited 11 cities.
Dzima says his Instagram comedian’s account has turned into an account of a volunteer and activist, but he never stops joking. Humor is always appropriate, he says. He also jokes about volunteers, but he doesn't say how exactly. "It's too dark."
"It's So Freaking Similar to April 1986"
Raman Sveshnikau is known in Belarus as a man who went around the world in two years, traveling to 25 countries. On foot or by hitchhiking, by boat or by motorcycle, over mountain passes of Georgia, in the steppes of Mongolia, on the rivers of Laos. He often had not a penny in his pocket. Roma took pictures, shot videos, memorized, and wrote things down. In 2016, he published a book based on these materials. But today, the travels are on hold, and Roma is one of the #BYCOVID19 volunteers. He manages air gateways between "clean" and "dirty" zones in Hospitals No. 6 and No. 10 in Minsk.
"This is the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the capital," says civic activist Andrei Stryzhak. "Yes, he does it in full protective gear. Yes, after the briefing. But this is so freaking similar to April 1986, and I so want everything to end well for the doctors who work in the ‘dirty’ zone, and for our volunteer, and for the patients, and for us."
But today it's very difficult. And the forecast isn't rosy and there's a lot of work to do, but we're not giving up. There are people at #BYCOVID19 who can not only talk but also do.
Initiative and Instagram
How important is it for the volunteers to be joined by VIPs?
"We need all the help we can get," Kim Mazur says. "It's not like if you don't have many social media subscribers, we don't need your help. Our main mission is to make people aware of what's happening. There is an activist, Anton Matolka. It's very useful that many of his subscribers share his opinion about the situation. And some think that all we’re doing is just a cool trend. There are people like that.”
"It's good when someone does something sincerely," Dzmitry Naryshkin says. "For example, my friend Dyadya [Uncle] Vanya, although he doesn't work with us, helped the doctors a lot, he did it via Instagram, collecting masks for them. This is his personal initiative, there was no campaign. On the other hand, I will not hide the fact that there are ‘stars’ who do absolutely everything with political connotations. There are those who don't care. And (I want this to be published) I am no better and no worse. If someone tells you that he got a call and was offered a hundred thousand dollars for his portrait to be placed on a billboard with an appeal to go to the parade, and he immediately refused – most likely, either there was no offer or they are a liar.”