“There will be no dialogue on the street: let that be a warning”, Natalia Konchanova, speaker of the upper house of parliament, told protesting health workers in Belarus last week.
She was addressing hospital managers, after more than 4000 health workers signed an open letter, calling for an end to violence against the protest movement; investigation of
torture allegations; an end to obstructions to health provision for imprisoned demonstrators; reinstatement of their colleagues sacked for protesting; and new, lawful presidential elections.
Doctors and health workers have been on the front lines of the protest movement in Belarus since the results of the 9 August presidential election were announced. Their first demonstration, in Minsk on 12 August – with posters saying “doctors against violence” – was triggered by their shock at the horrendous wounds inflicted by police on demonstrators.
That led to a chain reaction.. Hospital directors and rectors of medical schools were dismissed for failing to crack down on staff and student protests. Medical staff and doctors were dismissed or arrested for demonstrating; their colleagues were dismissed or arrested for demanding their release.
Konchanova’s statement, on 11 November, soon provoked a reply, on facebook, from Nikita Solovey, the chief consulting expert on infectious and parasitic diseases at the Minsk city council’s health committee and an associate professor of infectious diseases at the Belarusian State Medical University. Here we republish his post in full:
Madame Konchanova! I hope that this would be an appropriate way for slaves to address a master? Because slaves is how we, the medics, are now seen by bureaucrats and administrators, who believe that we have a duty to treat everyone at all times, but have no right to state our position, to defend our illegally detained colleagues or even to be allowed to simply stand outside our hospitals, notably in our own time, outside our working hours, at a weekend. For that we need to be packed into riot vans, beaten and jailed. So we have duties, but we have no rights. We get this. So, you mentioned a dialogue. You don’t want to have this discussion in the street. Fine then, facebook is an excellent alternative platform for a dialogue.
And now to the point, what exactly are many medical professionals, including myself, unhappy about?
1. The boundless violence meted out by security services to peaceful citizens. The beatings, shootings, torture and rape of our best and brightest. Because those who aren’t the best and brightest don’t care. That’s why so many medics, sports stars, arts and culture workers, college professors, IT professionals, manual workers and representatives of many other professions are out on the streets today. We haven’t spent days and nights solid inside our clinics, treating Covid-19 patients, locked up in
ICUs, working to free up Covid beds at long last for routine specialist medical care, just so that we could then use those beds to treat hundreds of patients with the kind of acute traumas caused by your security services that most doctors have only ever seen pictured in textbooks on wartime field surgery. We have been demanding, we demand and we will continue to demand that you stop all violence and punish the persons responsible for it. In the context of that “law and order based state” you so frequently mention.
2. The illusion of presidential elections. Yes, this time the falsified 80% win didn’t wash. The voters have become smarter, more active, more creative. Independent online monitoring platforms with more than a million users have evolved, along with white ribbons and recognisably folded ballots. Everything had demonstrated so clearly that your side had lost, that if you had a drop of conscience and honour left, you would have peacefully left our long-suffering Belarus and let it finally become a normal developed country, and not a pariah state. But you didn’t have enough, of either conscience or honour. You chose, as always, to spit in our faces. The slaves are used to it. They’ll wipe off the spit and forget it the next day. But we didn’t forget. And we won’t forget. And soon there will be new elections, no matter what. Without the presidential “dead grasp” on power.
3. Lies about everything on all levels. Let’s just take that burning question of Covid. How long are we going to repeat those fairy tales about infection rates barely over a thousand? Yes, of course, it’s a great achievement that official infection rates in just the past two days have topped 1,000 cases per day. Maybe something can be done about the mortality rate now? I don’t want to, and will not, explain to the relatives of the dead that somehow, when only four people in the country are dying of Covid, their dad is one of them, maybe he wasn’t given the right treatment? … No, sorry, ladies and gents, in most cases the treatment is exactly right. Otherwise many times more people would have died, and sooner. The problem is just that even in the world’s top hospitals the lowest mortality rates for Covid-19 patients in Intensive Care Units (ICUs) are 16-20%, the average is 40%, in some cases it’s been 60%.
Even a school pupil can do the maths by multiplying the number of Covid-19 patients in ICU beds by the mortality percentage rate… And I would like to remind you about dozens of junior and middle ranking doctors and health workers who have died of Covid in the course of their professional duty. In all this time of the pandemic, since March, nobody has found the time to honour and preserve their memory somehow, even in a memorial list on the Ministry of Health website.
4. Expulsions of medical and other students from institutions of higher education. What is happening at the Belarusian State Medical University right now would be a good subject for a top comedy talk show. Many student “expelled or not” can’t even figure out their status and can not get any written confirmation of their expulsion. The professors get some pretty spiel about how their students had been expelled for
breaking the code of conduct but not for expressing their civic position … and not at all because someone had said on TV that such students have no place at universities. Well, universities are exactly the right place for these students. Because the students being expelled are our best students, the most deserving, the highest achievers, the most self-motivated, who aspire to change the future of their country for the best. There is only one hope in all this. That very soon these same students will return to their places of learning. There’s nothing good to say about the university administrators who have besmirched their reputation by taking part in political repressions. They will need to look for new jobs.
5. The detentions, beatings, arrests and the firing of our colleagues, many of whom have worked night and day for months during this Covid pandemic, risking their own lives. You could hold a nationwide health congress today at the Okrestina detention centre: every kind of medical specialist is represented among the detainees, with the highest academic qualifications, titles and honorary degrees. Here you have really shot yourselves in the foot. In the hope of silencing everything and everyone you’ve overreached yourselves a bit. But there’s always a silver lining. Where the medical profession had lacked solidarity, this is now growing by the day, with workplace teams and entire institutions coming together. Video appeals are coming out regularly as clockwork, public letters and petitions are being signed by thousands of medical professionals. Even the once most apolitical medics have now got the measure of their true “value” to the state, they have seen exactly what kind of “gratitude” awaits them for their efforts, and they have realised that fighting for their rights and freedoms is a basic survival skill. So ultimately you will no longer get away with slave labour.
Now I have done my best to honestly and, hopefully, coherently state my position and that of most of my colleagues. If you could respond to us, it would be appreciated. But only if you respond specifically, point by point, and without empty waffle. We have already had our fill of that over the past 26 years. And as for “there will be no dialogue in the street” … dialogue, Natalia Ivanovna, will happen wherever the people of Belarus want it to happen.
Thanks to P for translating this. GL, 16 November 2020.
■ Once again thousands of people gathered on the streets of Belarus yesterday, facing heavy-handed police action. Many of them staged memorial events for Roman Bondarenko, who died after being beaten by men who were removing red-and-white protest symbols in the Minsk courtyard known as Change Square.
■ If you are in a union, please get in touch with the Belarusian Independent Trade Union, which has played a key role in the protest movement. Another support network, Bysol, set up by Belarusians working outside the country, conveys financial support to victims of repression.
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