Belarus’s president, who claimed vodka and saunas could keep coronavirus at bay, has said he caught COVID-19 and recovered “on his feet” without showing any symptoms.
Sounding a defiant tone, Alexander Lukashenko said: “Today you are meeting a man who managed to survive the coronavirus on his feet. This is what doctors concluded yesterday. Asymptomatic.”
He did not say when or how he might have contracted the virus.
“As I said, 97% of our population carry this infection asymptomatically,” he added, while addressing military leaders in Minsk on Tuesday, without disclosing a source for that figure.
At the beginning of the pandemic, instead of cancelling football matches as other countries did, he allowed them to go ahead without social distancing measures in place, and took part in an ice hockey match himself at the end of March.
Describing the sport as the “best anti-virus remedy”, he said at the time: “It’s better to die standing on your feet than to live on your knees.”
Belarus, which has a population of around 9.5 million, has recorded 67,366 confirmed coronavirus infections and 543 deaths.
Public frustration over his handling of the outbreak has fuelled the biggest protests in years against his rule ahead of a presidential election next month.
Mr Lukashenko has compared the opposition to criminal gangs and accused protesters of wanting to stage a violent revolution with the help of foreign backers.
Demonstrations have taken place with protesters waving slippers in the air and pledging their support for candidates standing against the 65-year-old, who has been in power for 26 years.
The slipper has become a symbol of the protests. According to the movement, the president represents a cockroach and the footwear a weapon to “squash” him with.
Mr Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by Washington, has imprisoned two of his main rivals in a growing crackdown on dissent.
The move has resulted in protesters rallying behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of one of the jailed candidates, who is now campaigning in her husband’s place.
Human rights groups say more than 1,100 people have been detained in recent weeks.