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Meeting to discuss measures to ensure sustainable operation of economy, social sector amid global epidemiological situation

23 April 2020
Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko held a government conference to discuss priority measures to ensure the sustainable operation of the economy and the social sector amid the global epidemiological situation on 23 April.

The meeting at the Palace of Independence was attended by top-ranking government officials, governors and aides to the President. “We have gathered together to discuss measures to ensure the sustainable operation of the economy and the social sector. First of all, such crucial sectors as healthcare and education. We need to make a number of prompt decisions on pending issues,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said at the beginning of the meeting.

He remarked that the world had changed beyond recognition in the past four months. “Allies, whose borders were open for decades, who maintained good relations with each other, reinstated those borders overnight and destroyed relations. This pertains to the whole world, you can see it. But people and those irretrievable losses in people’s relations are the main things. The global economy is currently under pressure from an unsolved problem – the so-called pandemic. Obviously, it also affects our country,” the head of state said.

The President emphasized that Belarus – a country an export-oriented economy – cannot fully isolate itself from the influence on its economy and on the way of life of its people. The country has utilized all available resources to fight the new infection, and the volume of these resources is commensurable with the existing threat, Aleksandr Lukashenko said. “We are responding adequately without exaggerations,” he added.

The head of state sad that Belarus will not disregard the recommendations of the World Health Organization but will act accordingly. “The director general of the World Health Organization sent me a letter yesterday thanking our country for the actions we are taking to combat the disease. The measures recommended by the WHO should be studied in detail,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said. “But what if they, let’s say, recommend us to impose some measures up to the curfew? I emphasize once again: if such a need arises we will impose the curfew, isolate cities, towns and villages. But is the country facing such a problem today? No. Therefore, we will not shrug off the the recommendations, but we must act accordingly, based on a set of recommendations, our experience. There is no room for hit-or-miss or just-in-case strategies. It will not get worse, but if we keep healthy people in the hospital just in case, we will not run out of hospital beds,” the Belarusian leader said.

The President added that Belarus has significantly increased the capacity of healthcare institutions, the capacity to produce domestic drugs and medical products. He stressed that now it is important not to overstretch the healthcare system. So far, according to him, Belarus is coping with this. “We are monitoring the incidence of COVID-19. But we pay attention, first of all, to the incidence of pneumonia, because any pneumonia can be aggravated by COVID-19, as is often the case. This is why the Healthcare Ministry, the whole healthcare system, thousands of healthcare workers need to focus on treating patients for pneumonia. At the same time we should not forget that there are other diseases," the head of state said.

Aleksandr Lukashenko is convinced that the country will cope with the coronavirus problem. This problem, the head of state believes, is becoming more political. “We will not have supporters, even sympathizers because we are going against the tide. We are acting in accordance with the situation, our healthcare system capabilities. We will be facing more of these viral diseases in this small, ugly world. We need to reinforce the healthcare system. This is one of the lessons. But we will talk about it after,” the President said.

The head of state also demanded to prevent overreach and panic in the society while fighting against the spread of infection: "We have people scared. They now think that it [coronavirus] is such an infection that you should run away from those who have recovered from it. Those who have recovered are our "golden pool". These people donate their blood so that we could make plasma and treat people. The people who have recovered should be proud that they stood up rather than being afraid of people saying something about them".

The healthcare industry employs almost 310,000 people, the total bed capacity is about 100,000. Laboratories work around the clock. Depending on the region the stocks of test kits are enough to last for 25 days. Moreover, they are now produced in the country and they are of good quality, the President noted.

"If the situation changes for the worse (I do not rule anything out, I am looking with caution at any slightest development), we will use the reserves. We have enough of them," Aleksandr Lukashenko stressed. “The whole vertical of power, all civil servants, never mind the healthcare system itself, should be involved in the effort to combat the disease. This is why, apart from members of the government and regional governors, I have invited regional commissioners and presidential aides for the meeting. I would like us to have a full picture of the situation in the regions so that we could produce the adequate response and help the healthcare system,” the President said.

“We cannot stop the operation of key branches of the economy. And the life showed us in a 4-6 weeks that we were right. All sides are now talking more about the economy, about how we will live tomorrow, and that 350 million (this is a thin edge of the wedge) people will be starving worldwide. I brought the issue to a head 1.5 months ago. No one is criticizing me for it today. They start to change their minds and realized that they need to restore the economy,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.

The President mentioned a record decrease in oil prices: the price for oil is close to zero, this is unprecedented. “Therefore, the economy is a priority. We do not have other sources for life except for the work of our people,” the head of state stressed.

“According to the reports, the GDP reduced by 0.3% in Q1 2020. There cannot be and will not be any justifications for the decrease in the GDP. Therefore, you should step up efforts to fulfill the plans that we have,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said. “Our small economy without a raw materials cushion had to deal with three blows at the same time. He explained that at the beginning of the year Belarus faced oil restrictions from the closest partner; then the existing economic ties were torn apart and borders were closed; and then the fight against COVID-19 began.

The President stressed that in these conditions we should do our best to hold out and prevent an economic decline. “We should do our best to keep people’s trust in the current economic policy and to maintain stable prices, at least, for important goods and services,” the head of state added. The government should not interfere with the operation of the Ministry of Antimonopoly Regulation and Trade. It’s up to the minister and his employees to make decisions. The main thing is to ensure employment. We need to stimulate people and small business to work harder,” the head of state added.

Aleksandr Lukashenko also remarked that in spite of a small GDP decline the real income of the population went up 7.1% in Q1 2020. “This is a good increase. I hope we will manage to keep it for the rest of the year,” he added.

The government suggested determining those industries which will be affected the most by the slowdown in economic activities and a smaller demand. A package of measures which has been submitted to the President includes regulations in taxation, leasing and labor relations, other sensitive aspects.

“There will be recommendations for governors and certain enterprises which the government is in charge of. If we allocate certain funds for the economy, the money will be distributed by governors. It was their demand. They say they will decide whether they will support a store, a synthetic fiber manufacturer, or a carpet factory. They are right, they know better, if we give these funds to anybody. We should not divide this money into small portions from Minsk. It makes no sense. It is good that regions will handle it,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.

However, the head of state deems it necessary to stimulate people and especially small business. “Restaurants should deliver food to enterprises and people’s homes without inflating prices. We asked elderly people to stay home, and they need food. Many families in self-isolation also need food. And some restaurants have started doing it, while other facilities are doing noting and are waiting for what we will give them. Nobody will give anything to anybody. If somebody wants us to give something, they need to tell us where we should take it. We cannot take anything away from people who are now working really hard and give it to those who are doing nothing. This will never happen,” the President stressed.

Summing up, the head of state once again noted that thanks to the mobilization of all agencies the country will cope with the spread of the infection and its consequences, but each of the agencies must do their own thing: doctors should treat people, governors - solve related problems, the government - work on economic development. The President expects responsible attitude, iron-clad discipline, diligence and dedication from everyone. "We have to work harder at this difficult time," he urged.

Prime Minister of Belarus Sergei Rumas mentioned some figures at the government conference. In particular, he said the country’s foreign trade is balanced because the surplus of foreign trade in merchandise and services amounted to $425 million in January-February 2020. The head of government noted that the GDP growth rate totaled 99.7% in Q1 2020. The figure is one percentage point below the quarterly target, yet it is above all the foreign and domestic projections. The government focused on developing domestic branches of the economy in conditions of the pandemic.

According to Sergei Rumas, the civil engineering industry made a positive contribution to the GDP. This industry demonstrated a growth rate of 106.3%, with housing construction 10% up. Agriculture (104.5%), informatization and communications industry (107.4%) contributed positively as well. The prime minister also drew attention to the operation of the branches of the manufacturing sector that rely on local raw materials. He also mentioned metallurgy, woodworking industry, and pharmaceutics. Cement production increased by 10% while ceramic tile production went up by 2%.

“All the other sectors also demonstrated positive dynamics. Each and every industry showed growth in February and March. Except the oil industry, which started growing in April due to objective reasons,” he noted.

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