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Prominent entrepreneurs join activists as volunteers in COVID19 response

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Volunteers unloading a vehicle with medical aid / Maryia Vaitovich, Euroradio​

Just a few months ago, these people were immersed in their businesses. Today, along with other volunteers, they come every day to the "base" at Kastrycnickaja Street in downtown Minsk to unload cars and put together packages for medics, who are rescuing Belarus from the coronavirus.  

"The heaviest burden is the burden of responsibility and fear that we won't manage to meet the hopes that have been placed on us. We now have over 2,000 requests for help from all over the country. We have to constantly work in a multitasking mode. I have lost 11 kilos, I feel physically and morally exhausted. My biggest desire is to get enough sleep," fitness coach Andrei Tkachou tells Euroradio.

Fitness trainer Andrei Tkachou

"I was told that I actually volunteered not because I had an active social stance, but because I had to clean and wash my home! In order not to do this, I just left home to go to the warehouse, says humorously StandUp Comedy Hall producer Dzmitry Naryshkin. He also lost weight (6kg) while working as a volunteer 6 kg.

StandUp Comedy Hall producer Dzmitry Naryshkin / photo from Facebook

"I once came across a video: a house was burning somewhere in Russia, a man was in flames on the balcony, someone was filming a close-up on the camera. You could see how he was in agony, how he wanted to save himself. There's an MES vehicle downstairs, but the rescuers can't cope with the situation. I suddenly realized that I don't want to stand with a hose downstairs and I don't want to watch, but I want to climb on the balcony and try to help," said Kim Mazur, co-owner of the Peresmeshnik (Mockingbird), Vinnyi Shkaf (Wine Case) and Ayahuasca bars. The next morning, a well-known restaurateur from Minsk joined the volunteers.

Kim Mazur, co-owner of Peresmeshnik (Mockingbird), Vinnyi Shkaf (Wine Case) and Ayahuasca bars / Bel.Biz

The spacious hall of the local gallery of modern art ( the "Ў" gallery), where exhibitions and cocktail parties were held a few months ago, now hosts the headquarters and warehouse of the civil initiative #BYCOVID19. Instead of paintings on the walls there are signs: "Thermometers", "Boot covers", "Respirators", "Gowns"... Underneath them, the volunteers sort the packages for the hospitals. 

The gallery's lights went out today. The volunteers are working, lighting bags with flashlights from their phones. The door opens, a ray of sun falls on the wall. Andrei Tkachou is here. 

"We have five minutes for lunch and then we need to unload the car!"

Tkachou has a tired look. While he eats, the volunteers tell him what they have managed to do. Someone says that a man came to the headquarters and brought a box of cookies for the doctors worth 500 Belarusian rubles  -- here's the bill. The phone rings several times, Andrei coordinates the activists who work in other cities. 

"After the first cases of infection began to be registered, I left the hall, where I spent 12 hours a day, to self-isolation. One day I was sent a request from a doctor, who said that his hospital lacked protective gear. I posted the information to Instagram, a friend of mine wrote that he was ready to buy everything that was needed. At the same time, ten doctors wrote - this time directly to me - asking for help. It became clear that something had to be done. 

Together with my friends, we decided to open a fundraising campaign to help doctors. When it all started, I could not imagine its scale. The first purchase was 10 overalls in a construction shop. And now, if you count all the money that people have transferred through MolaMola to fight against COVID-19, it is still about 300 thousand rubles. We cooperate with the chief physicians of Belarusian hospitals, the Ministry of Health, and the Foreign Ministry. And there's no chance for us to get out of it anymore. 

Finishing the salad, Andrei tells us how his day goes.

"It's very hard. Deliveries, documents, coordination... We have just returned from the city gynecological hospital, for the third or fourth time already. We brought them five overalls, gave the documents to the accounting department. Now I'll help unload the car, and we'll immediately go to pick up a ton and a half of spunbond, which was bought and paid for yesterday. Then we'll go back to the warehouse. Within two days, we will distribute it to the sewing ateliers, where the protective equipment will be made: some of it will go straight to hospitals, some will come back here, and we will decide where to take it later". 

It's very hard to decide where to take the aid first. "Guys, help us out, we're getting a COVID patient and we don't have any protective gear!" -- this is the message we regularly get. And sometimes the warehouse doesn't have what they need and there's nothing you can do. It was very hard. It's constant stress, load, very psychologically difficult.   

Andrei says that in a day you can go around 5-7 hospitals and walk 20 thousand steps. He apologizes and runs to unload the car. Volunteers take the overalls out of the bags.

"Look, pink ones! Positive thinking! And there are boot covers, too!" The guys look cheerful.

 "You can't just come to the hospital and say, 'Here are the masks"

"On March 15th or 17th I wrote to Andrei and asked him how to help. He didn't have time for me, he said to write him the next day, said restaurateur Kim Mazur. "I understood he was in the gallery and just went there without waiting for an answer. There were also Anton Matolka, Dzmitry Naryshkin and other volunteers. I said: "Hello, I want to help and will help." That's the story."

 

Kim says that he helps as much as possible. He is used to getting up early, running, and walking his dog. If the weather is good, he'll get to the warehouse. Usually, logistics activists say right away what kind of help is needed. 

"There's always something you can do," continues Kim. "There are girls who do paperwork. It turns out that we have too much bureaucracy, even at the volunteer level. You can't just come to a hospital and say, "Here are the masks." We have to keep a full account of every penny -- how it came in and how it'll be spent. This is to make people understand that the money they donate goes to the right place". 

I can't say that my work here is one of a series of volunteer races. When huge vehicles arrive, they need to be unloaded quickly so they don't disturb anyone on the street. Then you have to go somewhere, load up quickly, find a car for that. We write to the group -- if no one responds, we use a car-sharing service.  There're no big problems. We once managed to send away 19 orders in a day. You should know that we have covered 71 settlements and even more medical institutions all over the country. 

Kim says that the situation with COVID-19 is not improving and there are more requests for help, so in the coming days the volunteers will work from morning to night. To ensure that everyone has the opportunity not to abandon their family and work, the guys have drawn up a duty schedule. 

"If necessary, I'm ready to go anywhere"

Dzmitry Naryshkin receives a phone call from Euroradio during an evening walk with his dog Rocket. Today the comedian also went for spunbond and confesses that he is tired. 

"It's hard to explain why I'm tired, you need to feel it" he said. "While in the past I used to burn out once a week, now it happens almost every day. I have work-related issues and the reality we're all living now. It's also very hard to talk to you when the dog is pulling in all directions".

Dzima says that he joined the volunteers right after he closed down his stand-up club for quarantine.  

"I took this decision together with the participants because we did not want to gather people for public events. I heard about the initiative from my friends. I mostly go to Babruisk, it's my father's homeland. Somehow we realized that the city is big, and there's not enough feedback. I found local activists who also wanted to help doctors".

 

At the volunteers' office / Facebook photo.

I don't drive, but thanks to Instagram I can find people willing to drive me in 10-15 minutes. I also go to neighboring cities. If necessary, I'm ready to go anywhere. But in general, Anton Matolka is the person who drives around the country more than anyone else. Last weekend, loaded to the brim, he visited 11 cities.

Dzima says that now his Instagram account of a comedian has turned into an account of a volunteer and an activist, but he never stops joking. He says that humor is always appropriate. He also jokes about volunteers, but he doesn't say how exactly. "It's too dark."

"It's so freaking similar to April 1986" 

Raman Sveshnikau is known in Belarus as a man who has been around the world in two years, traveling to 25 countries. On foot or by hitchhiking, by boat or by motorcycle, on mountain passes of Georgia, in the steppes of Mongolia, on the rivers of Laos. He often had not a penny in his pocket. Roma took pictures, shot videos, memorized, and wrote things down. In 2016, the book "Roma travels" was published, based on these materials.

 

Traveler Raman Sveshnikau / Facebook photo

But today the travels are on pause. And Roma is one of the volunteers of #BYCOVID19. He manages air gateways (supplies electricity for quartz lamps) between "clean" and "dirty" zones in the 6th and 10th hospitals in Minsk.

"This is the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the capital," says civil activist Andrei Stryzhak. "Yes, he does it in full protective gear. Yes, after the briefing. But this is so freaking similar to April 1986, and I so want everything to end well for the doctors who work in the "dirty" zone, and for our volunteer, and for the patients, and for us".

But today it's very difficult. And the forecast isn't rosy and there's a lot of work to do, but we're not giving up. There are people at #BYCOVID19 who can not only talk but also do.

Initiative and Instagram

How important is it for the volunteers to be joined by VIPs?

"We need all the help we can get," said Kim Mazur. "It's not like if you don't have many social media subscribers, we don't need your help. Our main mission is to make people aware of what's happening. There is an activist, Anton Matolka. It's very useful that many of his subscribers share his opinion about the situation. And some think that all we do is just a cool trend. There are people like that. 

"It's good when someone does something sincerely," continues Dzmitry Naryshkin. "For example, my friend Dyadya (Uncle) Vanya, although he doesn't work with us, helped the doctors a lot, he did it via Instagram, collecting masks for them. This is his personal initiative, there was no campaigning. On the other hand, I will not hide the fact that there are "stars" that do absolutely everything with political connotations. There are those who don't care. And (I want this to be published) I am no better and no worse. If someone tells you that he got a call and was offered a hundred thousand dollars for his portrait to be placed on a billboard with an appeal to go to the parade, and he immediately refused -- most likely, either there was no offer or they are is a liar. Anyone will think twice about it."  

 

I can see that there are already some brands that make money on the hype, and there are those that help quietly. Recently I received a personal message from the Onega company, saying that we want to bring 30 boxes for doctors. I wasn't asked to post anything for it. And there are those who do something and praise themselves on every corner.