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Russian Media Targets U.S. Healthcare System To Promote Kremlin's COVID-19 Credentials

A Russian Air Force plane carrying medical equipment at John F. Kennedy International Airport on April 1, 2020
A Russian Air Force plane carrying medical equipment at John F. Kennedy International Airport on April 1, 2020

Moscow’s April 1 delivery of anti-coronavirus equipment to New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport may not have come “From Russia with Love,” but it still came with plenty of spin.

In the run-up to the military cargo plane’s arrival, Russia’s state-run and pro-government media depicted an apocalyptic situation in the U.S., claiming that coronavirus patients without health insurance are essentially left to die. These outlets provided similar can’t-cope-with-the-crisis coverage of the European Union, another long-term target for Kremlin disinformation campaigns, ahead of a Russian aid shipment to Italy in late March.

The U.S. currently has the world’s highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, with 368,376 known infections and nearly 11,000 deaths to date.

Against that backdrop, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov initially described Moscow’s shipment of personal protective equipment and ventilators as a humanitarian gesture that the U.S. could, if need be, reciprocate. State-run media outlets, like the RIA-Novosti news agency, followed the Kremlin’s lead.

But after the U.S. State Department clarified on April 1 that the U.S. government had actually purchased the supplies, these outlets did not necessarily change their reporting.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharovа’s April 2 allegation that the U.S. and the Russian Direct Investment Fund each covered half of the shipment’s cost also appears to have largely gone unnoticed.

Instead, Kremlin-allied outlets underlined material that would present Moscow as charitable, such as JFK airport workers’ or U.S. President Donald Trump’s expressions of thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin or Russia. Like Zakharova, they emphasized the State Department’s observation that the two countries had agreed “to work together to defeat the coronavirus ...”

The overall message “that this is a time for all nations to work together is one the Kremlin appears to hope to use to undermine attempts to maintain the isolation of Russia in general, the sanctions regime in particular,” commented Russia analyst Mark Galeotti in an April 6 op-ed for The Moscow Times.

The Kremlin has denied any such motive for its assistance to Italy.

But even as Russia itself suffers from severe shortages of basic anti-pandemic equipment, the country’s government-allied media have attempted to show that the U.S., like Italy and the “collapsing” European Union, badly needs whatever help it can get.

Ahead of the U.S. shipment’s arrival, such outlets kept their focus squarely on one of the most frequently cited U.S. vulnerabilities, an overburdened healthcare system.

The government-linked NTV’s March 29 Segodnya (Today) program was direct: The Coronavirus Will Destroy The U.S. Healthcare System, the broadcast was headlined on YouTube.

That same day, Rossia-1’s Vesti news show zoomed in on homeless people in downtown Washington, D.C., informing viewers that the country’s “half a million” homeless people “have nowhere to wash themselves” and no way to be treated for COVID-19.

One uninsured homeless man told the station’s reporter that an ambulance was his best bet for any treatment since paramedics will “help a little, but they don’t take kindly to people like us.”

In reality, though the U.S. government does not offer a specific healthcare plan for the homeless, government-funded, non-profit clinics throughout all 50 states and the District of Columbia provide free or low-cost healthcare services to the homeless and uninsured.

This detail was not included in the Rossia-1 report.

To emphasize its point, the station’s March 30 Vesti news show zoomed into a widely distributed piece of news that, among U.S. media outlets as well, has had a few twists in its reporting.

On March 25, Lancaster, California Mayor R. Rex Parris announced on YouTube that a 17-year-old boy who had died the day before, presumably from COVID-19, had been turned away from an urgent care facility because he lacked insurance.

The teenager’s death was billed as the first death of a U.S. juvenile from the virus.

In an interview with TIME, however, Mayor Parris later clarified that the boy did, in fact, have insurance and had been admitted to a hospital, but not in time. The teenager’s coronavirus infection became known only post-mortem. An investigation is ongoing into the actual cause of his death.

The reference to no health insurance has been cut out of Rossia-1’s video report about the boy’s death, but remains in a text story on the Vesti site, a portal for state-run news broadcasters.

The state-run Channel One TV broadcaster and RIA Novosti agency news agency also have not corrected their reports.

The fact that 91.5 percent of U.S. residents had some form of health insurance in 2018, the latest year for U.S. census figures, appears to be no obstacle for this coverage. Channel One has assured viewers that even insured Americans cannot be certain that their policies will cover treatments for COVID-19.

Delays in U.S. insurance companies pre-authorizing payments for coronavirus treatments have been reported, but, to date, industry-wide refusals have not.

For more, watch Footage Vs. Footage’s April 3, 2020 broadcast (in Russian only).