Country Coordinator for Belarus
Danish Red Cross
What connects us: commemorating the anniversary of Chernobyl.
As the Belarus delegate for the Danish Red Cross, what do you strive to do?
The Danish Red Cross (DRC) has been here for more than 25 years, always in support to the Belarus Red Cross’ (BRC) leadership in serving vulnerable communities. Early on, it was medical expertise to support BRC health programs for people impacted by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Later, DRC expanded support for BRC programs ranging from broader health initiatives, such as for HIV and TB and psychosocial support, to programs for youth development and civil society building. It’s a relationship of open respect, trust, and mutual interest, with both country teams, or what we call National Societies, learning from each other.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your community’s work?
The Red Cross in Belarus focusses on serving vulnerable groups: the elderly, ill, or lonely; those who are homeless, single-parent families, or victims of violence and trafficking; as well as people in prison, and those working to reintegrate back into society. Everyone is impacted by the general economic situation right now, yet vulnerable groups feel the impacts more. This paired with the pandemic deepens the isolation and social exclusion of vulnerable communities.
We are doing what we can to reach out to vulnerable groups to counter social exclusion. Red Cross volunteers shop for elders and help pay their utility bills, they distribute masks and deliver prescriptions, and they pack and deliver quality food parcels – for nutrition and food dignity – because no one should be ashamed of what they can or cannot afford to eat, and much more. We provide safety training for everyone involved. For example, volunteers must wear personal protective equipment, care kits are compiled into individual packages to avoid cross contamination, we advise people not to take photos together, and so on.
When was a moment when you saw groups mobilize; what did they accomplish?
I have been with the Red Cross for many years and I have never seen people mobilize like they have in response to COVID-19. We are a country that has experienced so much trauma. For example, with Chernobyl, everyone has a story; everyone has a relative or someone they loved that was impacted. Before that, World War II. It seems everyone in Belarus has relative that was injured or killed, a grandfather or grandmother. Yet in the face of today’s crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, I have seen people and groups rise up to support each other like I have never seen before.
People are organizing to support others, be it their neighbors, their local hospital, and crowd funding for much-needed supplies. The IT sector, the business sector, they are all mobilizing. The year 2020 was eye-opening, I see a nation rallying. During past emergencies, yes, people have taken action. But the mobilization this time, it’s more optimistic. Because people see that they are not alone. There is always a helping a hand.
Sergei joins Red Cross teams delivering food packages to elderly residents during the pandemic.
Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: a must read recommended by Sergei.
The mobile medical vehicle visits 20,000 people annually in remote villages, farms, fields, and schools.
What is a Red Cross moment that you cannot forget?
Last summer, as part of our COVID-19 response, we delivered food parcels to people living in isolated regions. We went to small villages around Minsk where the population is mostly elderly, people between 80 to 90 years of age. Somehow, they were taking care of their houses by themselves, but they were very lonely. When we arrived, their eyes were shining, they talked about how happy they were to see Red Cross, not because of the food parcels, but to talk to us. They asked questions about COVID-19 because they weren’t able to get the information anywhere else. They felt seen and heard. One person cried, I cried, I think we all cried.
What can people do individually and in their communities?
We need to understand that people handle situations differently and have different approaches. Not everyone responds in the same way, not everyone has the same motivation but somehow, we can find a balance. We’ve been sharing insights between the BRC and DRC about how people handle COVID-19 differently. I’ve learned that simple things can change lives. For example, we had an elderly person who was feeling very isolated and expressed motivation to walk in her yard with a dog. So, a Red Cross volunteer came with her dog and they walked together in the yard, at a safe physical distance.
What are some of the best books you have read?
Master and the Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, a Russian writer. It’s about a visit by the devil to what was then the Soviet Union in the 1930s. It’s a story wrapped in the supernatural, satire, and comedy. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, and Discworld, a series about a flat planet by Terry Pratchett, immediately come to mind. These books, their plots, their language, they remind me about the wonders and miracles that happen in life – that evil may win sometimes, but in the end, good things are possible.
What brings you hope?
I am optimistic. I hope that people are good and that their internal motivation is good. I have seen this again and again over the past year. Old ladies knitting blankets and clothes for those who are cold, families who have very little bringing in supplies to share with others who need them. Even if they themselves need help, they still reach out and help others. The world is not so bad.