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Despairing Russian Doctors Cast Doubt on Coronavirus Tally

By Jamie Dettmer June 29, 2020

President Vladimir Putin has compared Russian doctors to heroic Red Army soldiers battling the Nazis during World War II. Last week, the Russian leader signed decrees honoring doctors with special awards for their coronavirus efforts.

Many Russian medics, however, have voiced dismay at what they say is poor public appreciation for their sacrifices and are expressing anger with a government they say is failing them and their patients. They question the official figures the government has published for new cases and the death tally exacted by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel virus which first emerged last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The country's poorly resourced medical staff are generally guarded when speaking out about the shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, specialists and overstretched facilities. Russia's Supreme Court has ruled it illegal to discuss "fake news" about the deadly coronavirus pandemic in public and say doing so is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Even so, some appear prepared to court the wrath of the authorities. From across the country, raw medial testimonies echo each other in their grievances and descriptions. In the early stages of the pandemic, some tried to raise the alarm at the casual mixing in wards of suspected COVID-19 patients with those suffering from other illnesses.

And they have warned of a devastating lack of PPE and scant safety measures being observed in hospitals. A midwife from Ufa, a town in the Volga region, explained recently to Novaya Gazeta, an independent investigative newspaper, that large numbers of doctors are falling sick. "Doctors just take some of the drugs they have and continue to work because there is no one to replace us," she said.

Dmitry Belyakov, a paramedic in the city of Zheleznodorozhny in the Moscow region, cast doubt to the same newspaper about official coronavirus figures, saying they are deceptive and that the authorities are fudging the death toll. "I don't believe the official figures. If a person tests positive for coronavirus but dies of heart failure, what did they die from? It can be recorded as either. All our data gathering is built on this [flawed] principle," he said.

Russia's first officially recorded virus-related fatality – an elderly woman who died on March 19 – was reclassified, it emerged, as having died from a blood clot.

According to Russian authorities, the cumulative nationwide tally of infections is 640,246. The country's coronavirus response center says the death toll is at 9,152. Russian officials say the ratio of fatalities to confirmed cases is much lower than many more advanced European countries because the country's state of readiness was already high. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov says Russia has managed to keep fatalities low because tough decisions were made quickly about self-isolation and the country quickly built new facilities to add additional hospital beds.

Medics paint a different picture. And there are reports of at least one doctor driven to suicide because of despair. Natalya Lebedeva, head of emergency medical services for Zvyozdny Gorodok, a town in Moscow region, died in April after falling from a window. Lebedeva had been hospitalized with a suspected case of COVID-19. The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets reported that colleagues were skeptical of the official cause of death, which was ruled an accident. Her colleagues say she committed suicide.

Few doubted the Russian health care system would be stretched thin as the coronavirus emerged. Last year, nurses, doctors, ambulance staff as well as paramedics across Russia had been increasingly vocal about the deteriorating state of the public health service, staging strikes and coordinating a wave of resignations in more than 20 regions.

Anastasia Vasilyeva, head of the Alliance of Doctors, told reporters in October 2019 that the system was broken, and that strikes and industrial action by medical professionals were spreading from Siberia to Moscow, with her alliance's support, as well as the backing of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny.

In Moscow, a team of pediatric oncologists quit their jobs at one of the country's best cancer clinics to protest overcrowded wards, pay cuts and an "optimization reform." They told VOA it was impacting their ability to treat desperately sick patients. The doctors at the Blokhin Cancer Research Center said the system was falling into disrepair amid mismanagement.

In May, Irina Shikhman, a popular YouTube-based journalist, posted a series of interviews with doctors and other medical staff. Nina Klishina, a nurse from Solnechnogorsk, told Shikhman she felt naked when treating patients because of the absence of PPE.

"What choice do I have? No one is talking about heroism, like we run to the rescue. It is our job. The person is dying, you can't do anything, you have to help. I can't leave her," she said.

She explained that the hospital's laundry woman had been given pieces of gauze to sow into makeshift masks. "Of course, we don't take them much. But they are reported [as PPE] on the check lists." She and others complained that top managers had all but disappeared, determinedly avoiding danger.

Irina Vaskyanina, a doctor from the town of Reutov, described the testing equipment they were given along with the wrong spatulas for conducting nasal or throat swabs. Her own test came back negative, but she explained she didn't believe it. "I was called and told that I tested negative but I don't believe it because I was very sick. Two weeks with a fever and cough," she said.

Anastasia Vasilyeva with the Alliance of Doctors says management at some hospitals has been blocking PPE supplies the alliance has been donating. "We try to explain peacefully, 'We are a charity, we have all documents, we have donation agreements. Please take it.'" She says they have to smuggle the equipment into hospitals.

Vladimir Perlukhin, a doctor from Kletnya in the Bryansk region, told Irina Shikhman that doctors and medical staff have become one of the main sources for spreading the coronavirus because of the lack of safety measures and testing. "We are forced into silence, they insult us, yell at us, forcing us to keep silent. We work for pennies," he said.

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