Coronavirus: Russia’s regions hardest hit by second wave

Russians complain of long queues to enter hospitals, waiting for days for an ambulance and shortages of vital medicines

Medical workers visit a ward at the Pokrovskaya Municipal Hospital admitting Covid-19 patients. One of the worst-hit cities is St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest. Photograph: Peter Kovalev/TASS/via Getty Images

Medical workers visit a ward at the Pokrovskaya Municipal Hospital admitting Covid-19 patients. One of the worst-hit cities is St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest. Photograph: Peter Kovalev/TASS/via Getty Images

 

When Alina Kosova’s uncle fell ill in their Siberian village last month, the ambulance sent from the nearby city of Omsk left without him, prompting his family to drive him to the hospital themselves. When they arrived, the queue for patients was so long that he was only admitted 10 hours later, after colleagues pulled strings to find him a place.

Sergei Kosov vowed to relatives that he would expose the poor treatment and chaotic conditions at the hospital once discharged – but died before he got the chance.

The spiralling coronavirus infection rate across Russia’s nine time zones has aroused anger among many previously apathetic Russians like Kosova, an 18-year-old blogger, at what they say is authorities’ inability to cope with the pandemic.

Russia has recorded more Covid-19 cases than all but three countries, setting a new daily record of 29,093 on Sunday. The second wave has been particularly hard on Russia’s regions, which account for 70 per cent of active coronavirus cases and mostly lack the modern health infrastructure of Moscow.

The Kremlin hopes it can stem the tide after president Vladimir Putin ordered vaccination with Russia’s own Sputnik V to begin before the conclusion of phase three trials. Moscow began vaccinating teachers and doctors on Monday, while the rest of Russia will join the campaign at the end of next week.

Deputy prime minister Tatiana Golikova, the official heading Russia’s pandemic response, claimed last week that the country had enough beds for its 216,000 hospitalised patients, with only four of Russia’s 85 regions over 90 per cent capacity. But medical workers and ordinary Russians across the country have publicly complained of long queues to enter hospitals, waiting for days for an ambulance, and shortages of vital medicines.

After her uncle died, Kosova wrote a rap aimed at Omsk’s governor Alexander Burkov and criticising him for seeking Covid-19 treatment in the relative comfort of Moscow while “people are dying at home before they can make it to the ward”.

Burkov said he first tested positive in Moscow and remained there as per health guidelines, but has remained the focus of public ire as the pandemic pushes Omsk’s hospitals to breaking point.

Two ambulance drivers drove their patients to the local health ministry to protest against the long wait to be admitted to hospital. Officials eventually found hospital beds for the patients. Two regional deputy health ministers were sacked following the incident.

Kosova told the Financial Times that several of her 1.5 million followers on video app TikTok wrote to share their stories.

“The doctors aren’t professional enough, there aren’t enough supplies or beds,” she said. “The authorities probably want to calm people down, but they’re giving them false hope.”

The Kremlin has delegated unpopular lockdown restrictions to local officials who have proven reluctant to reintroduce them even after infections began to rise sharply in the autumn.

Strict lockdown

A relatively meagre array of payments to citizens and small businesses, coupled with what Putin called “the famous Russian devil-may-care attitude”, has left many pandemic-weary Russians unwilling to stay at home.

Only 57 per cent of Russians observe social distancing rules, according to a poll by the independent Levada Center in November, while only 45 per cent avoid unnecessary trips to public events.

Those officials who have proposed returning to strict lockdowns have met resistance from a Kremlin wary that Putin’s approval ratings may take a fresh battering after recovering from record lows in the summer, as well as business owners who complain of being scapegoated for policy failures.

One of the worst-hit cities is St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest. Officials there say hospitals are more than 95 per cent full, and warned on Monday that the city would have to enforce a stay-at-home order and turn over all medical facilities to house coronavirus patients if it cannot drive down the infection rate by the end of the year.

After St Petersburg moved to restrict the hospitality industry’s operating hours during Russia’s festive New Year period, however, the owners of more than 100 bars and restaurants vowed that they would flout the ban.

“The measures are completely illogical,” said Alexander Konovalov, a restaurateur who organised a “resistance map” of businesses that said they would refuse to comply. “If they closed down all restaurants, then most of them could get rent discounts . . . and survive,” he said. “Even a lockdown would be better than this.”

Vassily Vlasov, an epidemiology professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said the rise in cases was the consequence of Russia’s decision to lift restrictions in May even though infection levels remained relatively high.

“Lockdowns help us keep a quick-spreading infection in check over a short period of time, but you can’t keep it in place for long and as soon as you lift it, the infection rate rises,” Vlasov said.

The failure to sufficiently lower infection rates by the summer means the pandemic has spread to remote parts of Russia with poor healthcare infrastructure.

In Ust-Pinega, a village of 1,000 people just south of the Arctic Circle, Galina Letochkina has sought in vain to find an ambulance willing to take her parents for Covid-19 treatment after the local hospital closed last year.

“The river hasn’t frozen yet so you can’t even drive there,” Letochkina said. “If you call a doctor, he has to drive 60 kilometres and it doesn’t happen every day. There’s only one doctor and one EMT [emergency medical technician] [in the next village] and they can’t even handle the cases in their own village.”

Vlasov suggested that the worst could still be yet to come.

“The epidemic never ended in Russia. If there was a drop in the infection rate in Moscow in the summer, it was only starting to begin in Russia’s regions,” he said. “There’s only one city in Russia which has the resources to expand its healthcare base, and that’s Moscow. All the others don’t have the resources.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020

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