MINSK (Reuters) - A World Health Organization (WHO) official on Saturday urged Belarus to impose new measures to contain the new coronavirus, out of concern that the outbreak in the country has entered a worrying new phase.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held power in the former Soviet nation of 9.5 million people since 1994, has in recent weeks downplayed the need for social distancing and other measures to stem the spread of the virus.
He has said that drinking vodka, driving tractors and bathing in a sauna could help fight it, and he has been shown playing ice hockey matches and embracing other players.
Belarus has so far recorded 2,226 cases and 23 coronavirus-related deaths.
Patrick O’Connor, who led a WHO delegation in a visit to Belarus this week, said the country had implemented containment measures to detect patients with COVID-19, the acute respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
But he said the virus had begun spreading through communities in the capital Minsk and in other parts of the country.
“Belarus is entering a new phase in the evolution of the outbreak,” he told a news conference in Minsk.
“We are seeing community transmission occurring... This situation is concerning and warrants new measures to be put into place.”
He said the WHO recommended that Belarus “introduce community-wide measures to increase physical distancing”, and continue with isolation measures, testing and tracing the contacts of coronavirus patients.
Belarus has continued to stage professional soccer games, while other European countries have imposed lockdowns and cancelled all public events.
Reporting by Andrey Makhovsky; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Hugh Lawson