After Russia's strong start, Vladimir Putin makes bleak coronavirus admission: 'We don't have much to brag about'

The head of Russia’s coronavirus task force, Tatyana Golikova, assured President Vladimir Putin in mid-March that the country was ready to take on the pandemic

The New York Times April 14, 2020 06:57:35 IST
After Russia's strong start, Vladimir Putin makes bleak coronavirus admission: 'We don't have much to brag about'

Moscow: The head of Russia’s coronavirus task force, Tatyana Golikova, assured President Vladimir Putin in mid-March that the country was ready to take on the pandemic. From masks to ventilators, she said, Russia’s hospitals had everything they needed to weather the crisis.

“There is no reason at all to panic,” she said.

A week later, the head doctor of one of Moscow’s top hospitals caring for coronavirus patients quietly wrote to a medical charity asking for help. The hospital, he wrote, was in need of “disposable materials and equipment” to continue to serve the critically ill.

“We’re used to always living, somehow, in the unspoken, looking through rose-coloured glasses,” said Elena Smirnova, head of the charity, Sozidaniye. “They can’t hide this anymore.”

For weeks, the coronavirus pandemic had the makings of a Kremlin propaganda coup; even as western countries succumbed one by one, Russia appeared invincible, recording fewer than 100 new cases a day through late March despite its tightly packed cities, global travel connections and 2,600-mile land border with China.

There was talk that Putin’s early move to shut down most travel from China, along with an extensive testing and contact-tracing effort rooted in the Soviet Union’s disease-fighting legacy, was succeeding where Italy, Spain and the United States all had failed.

So confident was the Kremlin that it dispatched planeloads of aid to Italy, Serbia and even Kennedy Airport in New York, signalling that Russia had stockpiled so many masks and ventilators that it was able to share some of them with less fortunate countries.

But it has become clear in recent days that Russia is unlikely to escape a severe hit by the pandemic, presenting an existential test to the country’s teetering health system and a new challenge to the aura of rising confidence and competence projected by Putin’s Kremlin.

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File image of people walking through Maezhnaya Square in Moscow. By Sergey Ponomarev © 2020 The New York Times

“We have a lot of problems, and we don’t have much to brag about nor reason to, and we certainly can’t relax,” Putin told senior officials Monday in his bleakest comments on the crisis yet. “We are not past the peak of the epidemic, not even in Moscow.”

Putin warned of overworked medical staff and shortages of protective equipment, acknowledging what critics said was long clear: that Russia’s health system could be strained beyond its breaking point by the pandemic and that the government needed to do more to get ready.

There were also worrying signs of the pandemic spreading outside Moscow.

The government airlifted a field hospital to an Arctic town near the border with Norway, where hundreds of workers at a construction site were feared infected. The town of Vyazma, 130 miles west of Moscow, was closed off because of an outbreak at a nursing home, and 1,000 people were reported to be under quarantine in a hospital in the south-central city of Ufa.

As footage of hours-long lines of ambulances outside Moscow emergency rooms ricocheted through Russian social networks over the weekend, health officials went on state television and confirmed that the images were real.

“We objectively did not pay very much attention,” Golikova, the task force head, admitted in an interview aired Sunday night, “to how effectively the infectious disease service needs to be prepared.”

By Monday, Russia’s total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 had reached 18,328, double the level of five days earlier. The number of deaths stood at 148, a number widely seen as an undercount amid reports of other causes of death being declared for people who were ill with COVID-like symptoms.

The epicentre of the pandemic in Russia is Moscow, the biggest city in Europe, with a population of some 13 million and about two-thirds of the country’s coronavirus cases.

Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Putin’s former chief of staff, has won praise, even from some Kremlin critics, for levelling with the public about the threat of the disease and taking aggressive measures to try to slow its spread.

On 24 March, Sobyanin told Putin that the number of infected Russians was significantly higher than the official data. Days later, he ordered all Muscovites to stay home.

But the Kremlin continued to play down the seriousness of the threat.

“There is de facto no epidemic” in Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S Peskov told reporters 26 March.

Under the surface, however, Russian hospitals were scrambling to prepare, with limited resources.

Smirnova, of the Sozidaniye charity, launched a drive in late March to help hospitals fighting the coronavirus buy equipment and supplies.

The 19-year-old organisation has supported hospitals in the past but typically in relatively poor, far-flung parts of the country. Never in her two decades of charity work, Smirnova said, had she seen so many senior big-city hospital officials put their jobs on the line by asking for help.

“You must understand, a head doctor who says all is well is a ‘good' doctor,” she said. “If he says, ‘Things aren’t good at all; I’ve reached out to a charity,’ he is taking a risk.”

Working with Russia’s biggest state-owned bank, Sberbank, Sozidaniye raised more than $120,000 for hospitals across Russia, including nine in and around Moscow.

One of them, City Clinical Hospital No 52 in northwestern Moscow, has been relying on close to 100 volunteers to distribute food for medical workers and care packages for patients and even for help in setting up a new call centre.

Inside, with the hospital flooded with virus patients, conditions resemble those of military field medicine more than typical hospital care, a surgeon, Dr Aleksandr Vanyukov, said in a phone interview.

For now, he said, supplies of protective gear were sufficient. But he said he was increasingly losing hope that Moscow would be spared the fate of hard-hit western cities, in part because residents last week seemed to be relaxing their adherence to stay-at-home orders.

“When everyone was sitting at home and carefully observing the quarantine, it seemed like we were managing,” Vanyukov said.

But if the current pace of growth continues, he said, “We’ll be in a New York-type situation rather soon, probably.

“We’ll just drown,” he said.

With the epidemic bearing down, Russia’s state news media — which is adept at playing down domestic problems — has started to acknowledge its severity. The evening news on State-run Channel 1 on Sunday showed the lines of ambulances outside Moscow area hospitals and spoke of the “colossal pressure increasing with every day.”

The head doctor of the Filatovskaya hospital said it was treating 1,525 patients, despite a capacity of 1,350 beds. Another doctor said the hospital would enlist psychologists to help its workers handle the pressure.

Moscow’s medical personnel, the news report warned, are being stretched dangerously thin.

“In terms of doctors, things are difficult but bearable,” a Channel 1 reporter said. “But nurses are in catastrophically short supply.”

In a videoconference on the pandemic with Golikova, Sobyanin and others Monday, Putin warned that things were getting worse, with the number of severely ill patients rising.

He directed officials to take steps to remedy shortages in medical workers’ protective equipment and to share ventilators and medicine across Russia’s far-flung regions to respond to geographic differences in demand.

“All scenarios of how the situation could develop must be taken into account, including the most difficult and extraordinary ones,” Putin said.

Anton Troianovski c.2020 The New York Times Company

Updated Date:

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