My European pandemic experience has been a tale of two vastly contrasting cities and countries.
In early March, I flew from London to Warsaw, Poland, planning to stay for around ten nights before flying on to Minsk, Belarus. However, on the evening of Friday the 13th (a fitting date), and despite the fact that there were only sixty-eight confirmed cases of the virus in Poland, the Polish government announced a nationwide lockdown. All shops (except supermarkets), cafés, bars, restaurants, universities and schools were to close the following day. All flights and international rail services were suspended. Suddenly, I was stuck in Warsaw. My ten-night stay would turn into seven weeks.
The following week, Poland tightened the rules further. Now, you were now only allowed outside if you were an essential worker, or going to buy food or medicine. A week later, the rules were tightened yet further. Amongst other things, there was now a two-metre distancing restriction in public (even for family members), under-18s were not allowed outside unless accompanied by an adult, strict limits were introduced on the number of people allowed inside a supermarket at any one time and it was mandatory to wear disposable gloves to enter a shop, to be supplied by the supermarkets. (Has single-use plastic ever been so popular?!) The army would now assist the police in patrolling the streets to ensure compliance with the new rules – and gosh, they took that role seriously! Every few hundred yards around the streets in the centre of Warsaw there were police paired up with a member of the armed forces. On more than one occasion, I witnessed a police officer and accompanying soldier approach a couple and instruct them to stop holding hands. One unlucky couple appeared to be issued with a fine for the heinous crime of a public display of affection.
By mid April, it was compulsory to wear a nose and mouth covering if you left your home. The authoritarian Polish Health Minister Łukasz Szumowski announced that face masks would be compulsory until a vaccine were developed! Within the space of a few weeks, the country seemed to have happily embraced a 1984-style totalitarian police state, and the mood in the city had completely changed. The majority now seemed terrified of their fellow humans, going out of their way to walk as far away from others as possible. There was an atmosphere of fear the like of which I have never experienced. It was time to hatch an escape plan.
I took an eventful twelve-hour coach journey from Warsaw to Belarus. Arriving in Minsk was like stepping into a different realm. The mood of the city was not one of fear – things felt pretty normal. Roughly one in ten people chose to wear a mask, and while there were fewer people out and about than usual, by and large they went about their everyday business as if life was normal. Had nobody told them to be terrified of one another? That by simply stepping outside they are risking not just their own life, but the lives of everyone around them? What on earth would Neil Ferguson and his infamous Imperial College model say?
Belarus decided against the nuclear option: they have not pressed the panic button and destroyed the country’s economy, like most of the world. That’s not to say they haven’t introduced some measures. In Minsk, universities have switched to remote lectures; museums and theatres are closed; business trips have been cancelled, with meetings moved to video conferencing; care homes are closed to visitors, and arrivals into the country must self-isolate for fourteen days. But schools remain open, as do cafés, restaurants, bars, shopping malls and most outdoor events. Indeed, many thousands of people lined the streets for the annual Victory Day parade on May 9th. Belarus has struck a refreshing balance: one which has not led to a population in fear of one another.
The country often referred to as the last dictatorship in Europe suddenly has more individual freedoms than virtually anywhere left on earth – freedoms their neighbours the Poles could only dream of, such as the right to be able to get a haircut, or to hold hands with a loved one in public without fear of persecution by the police and armed forces stepping in to enforce the totalitarian rules. The world has turned on its head.