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Thousands of Belarusians took part in a day of civic labor at the government’s behest even as the novel coronavirus spreads at a fast pace in the former Soviet republic.

Citizens working in groups planted trees and cleaned parks and streets on April 25 as part of an annual event that dates back to the communist period.

Belarusian President Alyaksander Lukashenka, who has repeatedly dismissed concerns about the dangers of the virus, took part in the government-decreed event as did other state officials.

Lukashenka claimed humans’ disregard for the environment was in part to blame for the spread of the virus and that the day’s activities — like planting trees — could help defend against it.

“I once said that (God) saw that we have an awful attitude toward the environment” and lead a way of life that “does not meet those criteria that should be met. And he hit us on the head (with the coronavirus),” the presidential press service quoted Lukashenka as saying.

“Therefore, we are trying, if not to even out the situation, then at least to protect ourselves and our loved ones with these steps,” he said.

At one park, Belarusian state television showed bottles of antiseptic available for workers, few of whom, though, wore face masks as they cleaned up.

Belarus has been criticized for not imposing social-distancing measures or restricting public activities in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In stark contrast to other European countries that have adopted strict lockdown measures to contain the epidemic, Belarus’s borders remain open, factories, shops, and restaurants conduct business as usual in the country, and spectators are permitted to attend sporting events, including matches in the national soccer league.

The World Health Organization on April 21 said Belarus needs to postpone “large gatherings,” including sports, religious, and cultural events, and place in quarantine “contacts of confirmed patients and people potentially exposed to the virus,” they said in a statement.

Belarus has nearly 10,000 reported cases of COVID-19, more than neighboring Ukraine, which has about four-times the population. Nearly 70 people have died in Belarus from the virus.

With reporting by RFE/RL Belarusian Service and AP


[1] Участие в республиканском субботнике | Официальный интернет-портал Президента Республики Беларусь ➤[2] WHO/Europe | WHO expert mission to Belarus recommends physical distancing measures as COVID-19 virus transmits in the community ➤