Covid-19’s Effects in Russia

St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
Photo by Natylie Baldwin, October 2015

After an initial period of minimal infections and relative calm compared to other parts of Asia and the West, Russia is now seeing a larger outbreak of the Covid-19 virus. By March 21st there were 306 confirmed cases of the virus throughout Russia. According to Russia Beyond‘s reporting from March 17th, starting March 18th through May 1st, all travel into Russia from outside would be restricted as the number of confirmed virus cases in the capital increased by 50% in one day, likely due to mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s prior instruction that all patients with respiratory symptoms were to be tested. People in Moscow are working remotely if possible, stocking up on basic essentials, and holing up at home:

Starting from March 16, 2020, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has instructed all employers to screen their employees for fever and send those who have high temperature home, says the relevant order issued by the mayor’s office. All Moscow schools have been temporarily closed, while university students have switched to distance learning.

Some companies have introduced remote-working arrangements even before these official measures were announced.

“We were told back on March 13 that work in the office was being suspended for at least two to three months until everything settles down. At first everyone was happy, but now it is scary,” a TASS news agency employee told Russia Beyond.

To accommodate social isolation, many cinemas, theaters and museums are providing online access to movies and presentations.

Meanwhile, the governor of Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg, has suggested that it would be counterproductive to shut down the city but has discouraged domestic tourists from coming.

In Novosibirsk – Russia’s third largest city – located in Siberia, community development activist, Sarah Lindemann-Komarova, wrote about the changes that were gradually occurring within a week of the first confirmed cases in the area on March 13th: school closures, stockpiling of food, the donning of masks and gloves in public places, the shift toward working remotely for those whose jobs could be done in such a manner:

[It’s] March 18 and as of today no foreign nationals will be allowed in Russia until May 1. My daughter is home, my husband is still going to work. He is head of data science for a big financial services company and they are in the process of setting up a system so they can work from home, hopefully by Monday. I passed several parents teaching their kids to ski today. [My colleague] Natalia posted about the City Council meeting. There are 1377 specialized beds and 570 ventilators in the Region. The plan is buy another 16 respirators and have beds for up to 2,000 patients. Much of the behavioral elements of the program are still recommendations. Some of what they say is in place is clearly not happening. There are news reports of empty shelves in the City 30 km away but here, still food, still people without masks in cafes and restaurants. Russians are not panic-ers but is this the calm before a storm that will shake us all regardless of how well prepared we are, or have the fates, just this once, gone easy on the people of Siberia?

In an addendum entry to her diary later that day:

March 18, 14:33, announced the first official case of COVID-19 in Novosibirsk and one in Tomsk.

As the illness spreads, there are more reports of hoarding behaviors, especially by those who can afford it. As of this past weekend, many places of employment that cannot accommodate remote work are still open, such as factories and the spring military draft exercises were still scheduled to go ahead. There are reportedly more checking of symptoms of the virus, including temperature monitoring:

Russian public figures, doctors and citizens have launched a petition urging the government to take urgent action against the coronavirus as the country’s number of confirmed cases continues to climb, including postponing the April 22 vote on President Vladimir Putin’s constirutional amendments.

Moscow traffic police have launched spot checks on the city’s taxis to ensure drivers wear face masks and regularly disinfect their vehicles. Under new regulations, drivers must change masks every three hours and use sanitizer to clean their hands and disinfect their vehicles twice a day.

Last week, Putin had a meeting with other government officials in which he laid out what precautions should be taken for dealing with the virus. Here is the video (approx. 15 minute run time):

Foreign Policy published an article recently that must be read with discernment as it contains the usual negative assumptions about Russia. With that caveat stated, it did mention some interesting points:

On Tuesday, Putin toured a new coronavirus information center in Moscow that is pulling together high-tech resources, including surveillance cameras and artificial intelligence, to monitor social media for disinformation about the spread of the disease, properly enforce quarantines, and identify empty supermarket shelves, which have recently been emptied in major cities as Russians have begun stockpiling goods. After the visit, Putin said that he judged the situation in the country to be “under control.” 

“We were able to contain the mass penetration and spread” of the pandemic, Putin said during a government meeting of ministers and top officials in Moscow. “The situation is generally under control despite high risk levels.”

In spite of such public assurances, Russia has stepped up its defenses recently. Foreign nationals are now banned from entering until May 1 as part of an effort to slow the spread of the virus, and Moscow has barred all outdoor events and limited indoor gatherings to fewer than 50 people. Older Russians have been told to remain inside. Schools are now closed, as are major tourist attractions, while Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced a $4 billion bailout package on Monday to help businesses that are at risk due to the drop-off in economic activity. Russia has also shut its sizable land borders with its 14 neighbors, and the city of Moscow is currently constructing two large hospitals to house patients infected with the coronavirus. 

The article also suggests that current statistics from the Russian government may be an underestimate of the true numbers of people affected:

While official figures remain low, evidence is emerging that that reality is more severe, with many cases of the virus being misdiagnosed as other ailments. A report published last week by RBC, a Russian business newspaper, found that Rosstat, the country’s official statistics agency, has recorded an increase of 37 percent of cases of “community-acquired pneumonia” in January as compared to January 2019, which could fit similar symptoms to the coronavirus. Such an increase would represent nearly 2,000 cases. 

Other evidence that a much larger spread of the virus could be hiding in Russia was put forward by the Doctor’s Alliance, a recently formed countrywide union for medical professionals, who said that the true figure of those infected with the new coronavirus could be in the thousands, but that many cases have likely been labelled as pneumonia. In a recent video posted on the group’s YouTube channel, the organization also warned about a lack of protective gear in hospitals outside of major cities in Russia’s regions that could lead to more infections. The video also featured anonymous calls from doctors who said that they were being told to clear entire hospital wards in order to accommodate a flood of patients suffering from “pneumonia.”  

Moscow’s mayor Sobyanin seems to agree. With the number of diagnosed cases shooting up since the beginning of the week, Sobyanin advised Putin yesterday during a meeting of the State Council that the government’s current official figures may indeed be misleading in terms of how many Russians are potentially infected and how the spread of the virus may develop:

Meeting with Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin said the country’s official data may not be wholly accurate. He noted that many cases had not been tested, and urged the president to take more robust measures to battle Covid-19…

…The mayor told Putin that many of those who returned from abroad did not get tested but went instead into self-isolation. It is unknown how many of them were infected.

To battle the spread of coronavirus, Sobyanin – in his other role as head of the State [C]ouncil’s Covid-19 task force – announced a new set of instructions for other parts of the country. The plan includes making sure there is the correct number of hospital beds and ventilators in each area of the country. He also stated that “not all regions understand” how to deal with the virus. 

“All regions, without exception — regardless of whether they have patients or no patients — everyone needs to prepare,” he said.

Sobyanin further explained that it is vital to enforce a nationwide quarantine on Russia’s elderly. According to him, the healthcare “system will fail” without such measures. 

According to reports out of Russia this morning, Putin has postponed the national vote on the proposed constitutional changes and declared that all non-essential workers are to stay home on paid leave for one week. Prime Minister Mishustin has also ordered mobile phone companies to work out the logistics within a few days of beginning to track those with coronavirus in order to have the ability to notify those who’ve been exposed.

One new case of Covid-19 confirmed over the past weekend in Russia is the infectious disease specialist for the Stavropol region, Irina Sannikova. She had recently returned from vacationing in a hot spot of Spain and did not report it upon return or quarantine herself. Amid fears that she has spread the virus, she may be held criminally liable according to Russia-based journalist Bryan MacDonald.

In other Covid-19-related news. Putin has agreed to send a team of doctors and medical equipment to Italy after a request from the hard-hit country’s Prime Minister. So far, China and Russia have stepped in with medical and humanitarian aid to Italy as Europe and the United States have done nothing to assist their ally.