Young street doctor defies virus to help Belarus homeless

Minsk (AFP) –


For the past year-and-a-half medical student Karina Radchenko has provided free health care to the homeless in the Belarussian capital Minsk.

Since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak she has seen a spike in the number of people needing her help.

Many people who were eking out a living in the ex-Soviet country before the epidemic can no longer afford to purchase medicines or go to a doctor, said Radchenko.

Together with those sleeping rough on the streets some of them come to see her.

"They are now forced to ask for help together with the homeless because there's nowhere else they can get it," Radchenko told AFP during one of her street rounds.

The 28-year-old is the founder of "Street Medicine," the country's first volunteer project to treat the homeless and needy.

Pensioner Tatyana, who declined to give her last name, said she comes to see the volunteers "sometimes" -- when she runs out of money.

On a recent afternoon Radchenko distributed nonprescription medicines to her patients with the help of several fellow volunteers in a small park.

She and her assistants wore visors and gloves to protect themselves against the infections.

An elderly woman turned up to have her blood pressure checked.

Another elderly woman received a surgical mask.

A 30-year-old ex-convict had his temperature taken.

Yury praised the volunteers for giving out medicines and masks.

"There are many fatalities. People should not be dying," he said, declining to give his last name.

Radchenko's team does not have testing kits to screen people for the coronavirus so all they can do is to watch out for the disease's telltale symptoms.

"We pay special attention to people with signs of a respiratory infection," she said.

Belarus, which has a population of more than nine million people, has reported more than 16,700 coronavirus cases overtaking neighboring EU member Poland and ex-Soviet Ukraine.

Ninety-nine people have died so far.

The ex-Soviet country remains one of the few nations that did not impose lockdown measures.

Its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has dismissed the contagion as a "psychosis" and plans to stage a military parade to mark victory over Nazi Germany next week.

- 'At our own risk' -

Radchenko, who is a fifth year medical student, said the country's most vulnerable people -- who face a higher risk of being infected and then infecting others -- were not getting enough help.

Organisations providing care for the homeless were either closing doors or reducing working hours over coronavirus fears.

Radchenko, who was inspired by projects like the US-based Street Medicine Institute, started out on her own in late 2018.

The one-woman mission gradually grew, and now the team includes 25 volunteers including around seven doctors, all of them practising physicians except her.

Since the start of the project, they have cared for more than 200 patients.

Twice a week they hit the streets to seek out the homeless. But Radchenko does not know how long they will be able to continue. The state does not help, and donations are small.

There is also no law regulating their work.

"We operate at our own risk," Radchenko said.