Two weeks ago, the British Government has asked people to stay at home. Even so, it was criticized at home and abroad for acting too late.
In epidemiological terms, Belarus is exactly 13 days behind the UK, and even further behind most EU countries, when it comes to the spread of the virus. We had the same number of infections per million of population on 20 March that the UK had on 7 March. So, it would seem Belarus has several days to prepare for the epidemic.
Item #1 – Brace for Impact: Preparing the medical services for a rush of cases of viral pneumonia is the top priority. We are working with the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization to identify necessary medical supplies. The Government will probably need help from other UN organisations to locate these supplies because many items are becoming hard to find on world markets. If Belarus needs financial support to buy these supplies, the World Bank is here to help.
Item #2 - Social Distancing: The next critical action can’t be done by lawmakers alone. This must come from every Belarusian citizen. As the WHO tells us, we all have our part to play. Social distancing means reducing human contact to the minimum. Otherwise the epidemic will spiral so quickly that it will overwhelm public health services and people will die because there are not enough doctors and equipment to treat them. The probability of a nationwide epidemic is extremely high, but the slower it spreads, the better the health services will cope. Without social distancing, the number of infections can double every three days. With social distancing, there is a chance to stabilize the situation, as we have seen in Wuhan. We will likely all have to stay at home for several months. Schools may close. Non-critical businesses will have to suspend activities. Officials will have to work on their laptops at home. Old bureaucratic practices will have to be set aside temporarily.
When we stay at home, we save lives. It’s as simple as that. Belarusians will be ready and willing to self-isolate as a social duty. It is vital for the country’s authorities to guide and explain the seriousness of the crisis.
Item #3: Strengthen Social Programs: Many Belarusians will lose their jobs in 2020. Even more will see the purchasing power of their wages fall. Even without coronavirus, Belarus was heading for recession and now hundreds of thousands of Belarusians will face economic hardship as global economic activity shrinks. All around the world, therefore, governments are strengthening their targeted cash transfer programs for the poorest in anticipation of the epidemic fallout. The fact that the World Bank has called on Belarus to strengthen the targeted social assistance program (GASP) is old news. But that recommendation is now more urgent than ever.
Medical readiness, social distancing and targeted social assistance represent a trident of solutions. They need to be undertaken in days, not in weeks or months. We also need to think about how to support the private sector and how to ensure our kids keep up with education when they can’t go to school.
Every day this week when I switch on my World Bank email, my inbox is full. I am seeing literally hundreds of examples from my colleagues around the world of countries preparing their medical services, of leaders explaining social distancing, and of strengthened social assistance programs. 2020 will change us all, but the World Bank is ready to support Belarus to find a way through this difficult time.