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Shortages Plague Russia’s Doctors Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic

A medical worker and a man wearing face masks talk to each other at the Botkin isolation hospital, a facility in St. Petersburg, Russia where patients are kept under observation for possible inflection by COVID-19.
A medical worker and a man wearing face masks talk to each other at the Botkin isolation hospital, a facility in St. Petersburg, Russia where patients are kept under observation for possible inflection by COVID-19.

Even as Russia’s government-controlled or mainstream media outlets last week touted Moscow’s delivery of medical aid to coronavirus-struck Italy, Russian medical professionals told Current Time that they are unable to get the supplies they need to fight the virus.

To date, 14 Russian military cargo planes have flown medical equipment for disinfection and diagnostics, plus scores of virologists and epidemiologists to Italy’s Lombardy region, the epicenter of its coronavirus crisis, the worst in Europe.

The Russian government’s aim appears to be “to demonstrate that it’s possible to defeat this especially dangerous infection in the Russian Federation, and that Moscow has the resources to help other states,” wrote the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

That appears debatable, however. The Alliance of Doctors, an independent union with 31 regional branches, has received complaints from doctors throughout Russia about a lack of personal protective equipment, said the group’s director Anastasia Vasilyeva.

“And such supplies are nowhere,” Vasilyeva said. “Plus, now they’re not even in pharmacies. That is, the demand for masks grew so much that they simply disappeared.”

So far, Russia has reported 1,836 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the highest number in Eurasia.

On March 4, to help combat the virus, Russia halted the export of medical face masks and other medical supplies until June 1. At the time, the state-run TASS news agency reported that the country produces 1.5 million such masks per day.

If so, they do not appear to have reached all doctors.

“There’re few masks,” said one Moscow hospital oncologist, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions by his employer. “You have to sign for them when they’re given out since there really aren’t any in storage and a lot have been stolen by patients and employees.”

In Russia’s second-largest population center, St. Petersburg, Ilya Fomintsev, director of the non-governmental Cancer Prevention Foundation, noted that, aside from medical face masks, gloves, goggles, respirators, and hazmat suits are all difficult to obtain.

“There’s nothing. In some places, there’s something; some places have more, some have less. But the situation overall is bleak, and scalpers have turned up, too.”

In Moscow, one neurologist’s office even lacks something as simple as mercury thermometers.

Dr. Vsevolod Shurkhai said his research and consultation department at the state-financed Burdenko Neurology Center has just one thermometer for checking the temperatures of 40 medical personnel, in accordance with COVID-19 precautions.

The prominent clinic, which often treats elderly patients at greater risk for the new coronavirus, does not have ultraviolet lamps to purify the air, as the Russian capital’s chief medical officer has ordered. It also lacks sufficient respirators.

Shurkhai has filed a complaint about the shortages with the Prosecutor General’s Office and consumer-watchdog Roskompotrebnadzor, which is coordinating the Russian government’s coronavirus response.

Under Article 143 of Russia’s Criminal Code, any individual charged with enforcing safety rules can be held liable for their violation. Potential punishments include a fine of 100,000 – 300,000 rubles ($1,265 - $3,765) and up to four years of compulsory labor or prison.

Dr. Shurkhai’s previous efforts to resolve the problem at work proved fruitless, he alleged. Screenshots of chats with his boss show that the physician was asked “not to escalate the situation.”

“To my mind, if an institution can’t fulfill the chief medical officer’s demands, then this needs to be resolved not by muzzling employees’ mouths and conversations about the fact that there’s a serious situation in the country,” Dr. Shurkhai commented.

But for pro-government Russian media outlets, the “serious situation” lies primarily in Italy.

Some pro-government Russian media outlets depicted Russia’s disinfection activities in the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization member as a sign of the two blocs’ own inadequate responses to the crisis.

“It wasn’t their European neighbors or Brussels that responded to the call of Italy, which, obviously, cannot cope with its disaster on its own, but China and Russia,” declared news show host Olga Belovaya on the Russian Defense Ministry’s Zvezda (Star) TV channel.

A video clip showing an elderly Italian man rolling up the EU flag and replacing with a Russian one has been shown uniformly on mainstream TV channels as proof of this conclusion. The video’s origins are unclear.

The fact that “a likely opponent” of NATO “is saving Italy” only adds the Euro-Atlantic alliance to the list of “pointless international organizations not functioning in the new international reality,” opined, a portal run by Russian academics specializing in the Baltics.

By contrast, little attention has appeared to be given to a March 25 report in La Stampa, a leading Italian daily, that cited anonymous senior Italian officials who claimed that most of the assistance, entitled From Russia With Love, was “absolutely useless or of little use.” One such official charged that the aid had been a mere publicity stunt.

Other European media have floated the idea that the aid was designed to encourage Italy’s support for reducing EU sanctions against Russia.

“Russia’s help is not unselfish at all. Its aim is to get rid of EU sanctions,” commented SRF, Switzerland’s government-run broadcasting outlet. “Besides that, Moscow presents itself as a geopolitical alternative to Washington. Europe looking at the East and not the West is the Kremlin’s dream.”

In response, Russia’s ambassador to Italy, Sergey Razov, expressed surprise at La Stampa’s report, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed as nonsense claims that Russia’s aid mission was targeted at EU sanctions.

“We’re not talking about any conditions or calculations or hopes here,” Peskov said. “Italy is really in need of much more wide scale help and what Russia does is manageable.”

Within Russia itself, opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has blasted the government’s aid campaign as something that shocks TV viewers in Russia’s medically undersupplied regions.

“It seems to me pretty absurd that, when we have poverty and doctors don’t have masks or anything, we take and send nine planes of something to Italy,” Navalny said on March 26. “Well, that’s just spitting in the faces of our own citizens.”

The shortages stand out particularly in locations far from the medical hubs of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

In the town of Vladimir, 180 kilometers east of Moscow,

emergency teams have run out of anti-epidemic protective supplies, according to one paramedic there. Ordinary surgeon gowns were purchased as a replacement for hazmat suits. No respirators or goggles were provided.

Some 6,000 people are under quarantine in Vladimir, a city of over 310,000.

When paramedic Yekaterina Ashayeva’s ambulance crew refused to pick up coronavirus patients without proper protection, they were threatened with dismissal, she alleged.

The paramedics have since received a written order “that we’re obliged, under any scenario, to go to these patients,” Ashayeva said. “Just in a mask, a hat, and in our usual gown, without any epidemic uniforms.”

Ambulance crews can easily act as carriers of the virus themselves, confirmed Dmitry Belyakov, head of the paramedic union. In Moscow as well, not all crews have appropriate protective gear, he added.

One ambulance crew put itself under quarantine after taking to the hospital a 75-year-old man who’d recently returned from Italy. The man died an hour after reaching the facility. The ambulance, however, went on to make an additional two to three calls.

“The [city] Department of Health told us that the sick man had died from other causes and that the coronavirus had nothing to do with. We’ll all believe the Health Ministry and hope that there wasn’t any coronavirus there, and that the crew didn’t spread anything anywhere,” Belyakov said. “But the fact is that this is possible.”

The Ministry of Industry and Trade has announced that clothing manufacturers will start producing face masks that will be delivered to pharmacies. A Russian military cargo plane reportedly flew in 25 million Chinese face masks, but when hospitals will receive them is unknown for now.

-- With additional reporting from Reuters and TASS

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