Belarus holds day of civic labor despite rising virus cases

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Members of the pro-government Belarussian Patriotic Union of Youth clean monuments on a military cemetery during a subbotnik, a Soviet-style Clean-up Day, in Minsk, Belarus, Saturday, April 25, 2020. Hundreds of thousands of state employees attend a mass community clean-up event on Saturday. The World Health Organization is urging the government of Belarus to cancel public events and implement measures to ensure physical and social distancing amid the growing coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

MINSK – More than 2 million Belarusians, including doctors and nurses, took part in a government-decreed national day of civic labor Saturday despite worries about the country's sharply rising coronavirus infections.

The work, including painting, tree-planting and general clean-ups, was ordered by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has dismissed concerns about the virus even though Belarus has recorded more cases than neighboring Ukraine, a county with four times as many people.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, has retained many Soviet-era practices during his quarter-century in power, including the day of civic labor — known as a “subbotnik” from the Russian word for Saturday.

“Subbotnik is the good that we took from the Soviet period, that’s the whole ideology,” Lukashenko said as he helped plant trees in southern Belarus.

The Belarusian government has not imposed social-distancing requirements or restricted public activities in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Of the hundreds of people working along with the president, none were seen wearing masks.

The government said late Saturday that a total of 2.3 million people took part, about a quarter of the country's population.

The subbotnik order called for participation by all state employees — state enterprises and services account for about 55% of Belarus' workforce — although doctors and nurses were given the option of forfeiting some of their wages, a loss of about $3 for a doctor.

Nurse Nina Yegorova chose to work.