Russia to Ease Shutdown Amid Steady Growth of COVID-19 Cases
By Zlatica Hoke May 07, 2020
Russia has announced plans for a gradual easing of coronavirus restrictions after the so-called non-working period ends Monday.
Officials announced the decision after discussions with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, despite a stream of more than 10,000 new COVID-19 cases a day in recent days. Russia now reports the world's seventh-highest number of infections, about 166,000 on Wednesday with 1,537 reported virus-related deaths, a comparatively low rate in contrast with other countries. Many analysts have expressed doubt that the figures are realistic.
"The Russian media presents this as a result of the Russian medicine, which, they claim, inherited the 'best' traditions of the Soviet medicine," said Russia analyst Peter Eltsov, author of the book 'The Long Telegram 2.0: A Neo-Kennanite Approach to Russia.' He told VOA in an email that the official news media "also constantly thanks Putin for his allegedly remarkable and humane leadership, claiming that the U.S. has failed to counter the virus properly."
But, Eltsov said, "the Russian people are very skeptical about the threat of coronavirus and the legality of the quarantine measures introduced by the Russian government, particularly in Moscow, where people are not allowed to leave their houses, except for the most essential needs."
Russia's densely populated capital has been the city hit hardest by the coronavirus.
Putin has not imposed a state of emergency. Instead, he instructed local leaders to enact the unpopular lockdown measures.
"Housing conditions for the majority of the Russian people are tough," Eltsov said. "Families of three to five often reside in two- to three-room apartments." He said the timing of reopening may be premature.
Putin left it for local leaders to decide on the pace of reopening. He said in some regions the measures should remain in place or be tightened if necessary.
"We should not run ahead of ourselves," Putin said, speaking from his Novo-Ogaryovo retreat west of Moscow. "The hardest-hit regions should keep strict measures in place while others should plan to gradually ease restrictions."
Moscow's officials said that industrial and construction companies would be allowed to reopen Tuesday. But they said the service sector, businesses, schools and households will remain under strict lockdown and self-isolation.
Governors of other regions said they would be relaxing shutdown orders to allow families to take recreational walks and small shops to reopen before extending the permission to other sectors.
Some analysts say Putin is avoiding making orders to either open or close the country that may backfire. His popularity appears to be declining along with Russia's economy, which has suffered from an unprecedented loss of oil and gas revenues.
The president's approval rating fell to a historic low of 59 percent in April, down from 63 percent in March. The poll by Russia's Levada Center was conducted by telephone instead of face-to-face, which could account for some of the loss. Putin's approval rating was 69 percent in February. The coronavirus pandemic forced him to postpone a referendum scheduled for April that could have extended his power for life. He plans to hold it at a later date, but his prospects for success might be dimmed as he struggles to shore up the economy and contain the coronavirus outbreak.
Russia's coronavirus crisis deepened following reports of three doctors falling out of windows in separate cases. Two have died, and one is hospitalized in critical condition. All three had been critical of their working conditions and lack of protective measures.
Alexander Shulepov, an ambulance doctor in Voronezh, a city about 515 kilometers south of Moscow, was in serious condition after falling from a hospital window on Saturday. He worked in the local Novousmanskaya hospital and was being treated there for coronavirus when he reportedly fell out of the window. But some of his colleagues claimed in social media posts that he was forced to continue working even after testing positive for coronavirus.
Local officials deny that Shulepov was forced to work and say that negligence caused him to fall when he sat on a windowsill to smoke.
Another doctor, Elena Nepomnyashchaya, fell from a high-floor window of a hospital in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on Friday and died after spending a week in intensive care. That doctor reportedly opposed turning a ward in her hospital into a coronavirus facility because of a lack of protective equipment. The regional health department denied the allegations in a statement, saying the hospital is in reserve for coronavirus patients and its staff had been trained and equipped.
Natalya Lebedeva, head of the emergency medical service at Star City near Moscow, died on April 24 after a fall from a window at the facility.
A history of deadly accidents befalling journalists and others critical of the government has sparked social media speculation that the doctors' accidents were a result of foul play.
Anastasia Vasilyeva, the head of Russia's Alliance of Doctors, told CNN she did not think anyone was deliberately targeting doctors. The incidents, she said, likely reflect the stress doctors are under in an underfunded system during a pandemic.
There is no official data on how many Russian medical workers have died while treating COVID-19 patients, but a group of Russian doctors compiled an online Memory List of health professionals who died during the outbreak.
The list had 113 names on Wednesday.
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