Putin’s early ending of lockdown cannot disguise depth of covid-19 crisis

Putin taking part in a video conference on covid-19 (Creative Commons)

On May 11, Vladimir Putin ended the “non-working days” regime and local authorities are gradually ending the self-isolation rules. This is happening while Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, and the head physician of the Moscow Infectious Disease Hospital, have become infected with covid-19. Russia today ranks third in the number of those infected with covid-19, after Brazil and the United States.

The non-working days policy lasted from 30 March to 11 May, and over the entire period, the government built itself up as heroically trying to stop the spread of the virus by all possible measures. The effectiveness of the measures taken can be considered clearly. If at the time of the start of “non-working days”, on 30 March, the increase in patients with COVID-19 amounted to 302 people per day, then, by May 12, at the time of the official cancellation of this regime, the total was 10,899 people per day.

But this growth is not surprising since most enterprises worked during the period of self-isolation. There were simply no days off. For example, in oil-bearing Tatarstan during the period of self-isolation, more than 90% of enterprises worked. It is in the workplaces that the main infection takes place. There was a widespread infection of workers at the Chayandа field in Yakutia. One in three out of 10,500 of all workers in the field became infected. The authorities did not take action to evacuate the workers until the last moment and not until they came out on a spontaneous protest.

Ventilators catch fire

To maintain the life support of patients with coronavirus, the Russian authorities began to purchase mechanical ventilation devices. During the epidemic, Russia experienced an acute shortage of such equipment. It was decided to increase the production of Russian ventilation devices tenfold. The main supplier of mechanical ventilation devices is the Concern Radioelectronic Technologies, which includes the Ural instrument-making Plant. Models of Russian ventilation devices are shown to the Minister of Industry. Several devices are even delivered to the USA. But on 9 May and 12 May, two fires occur, as a result of which six people die, among them patients with COVID-19. The reason for this is a short circuit occurring in the ‘Aventa-M’ ventilator model.

Russian ventilation has been blamed for the discrepancy between quality and modern requirements for some time. After the fires, twelve charitable foundations appealed, two years ago: “Medical organisations do not buy domestic equipment, not because they ignore the Russian manufacturer, but because the Russian models do not compete with the Western ones in quality, reliability, functionality and convenience … State support of the domestic manufacturer is planned due to the health and quality of life of our citizens …”. These lines from the letter sound like an ominous prophecy.

As a result, the use of Aventa-M was suspended throughout the country. This story is further evidence of how protectionism and the indulgence of power by the capitalists can be dangerous.

Mortality rates of coronavirus in Russia

The official mortality rate from COVID-19 is 7.4 times lower than the world-wide figure, which was announced with pride by Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova. According to her, Russia has achieved such a result thanks to quality medical provision. It sounds like an absurd explanation, because everyone remembers the massive cuts in medical staff last year, while the salaries of doctors, as a whole, have not increased significantly. At the same time, Golikova said that no one is hiding the death toll from COVID-19. But the facts speak otherwise.

In early May, Moscow authorities published preliminary data on the registration of deaths in the city in April. It turned out that the registry offices of Moscow recorded 11,846 deaths – almost 20% more than the average for this month. Demographic experts immediately indicated that this “excess mortality” is a consequence of the coronavirus epidemic. Moreover, compared with April 2019, mortality increased by more than 1,800 people, and only 658 people officially died from coronavirus in a month. That is almost three times less. The Financial Times cited these discrepancies. The New York Times, in turn, published material on the underestimation of the number of deaths by 70-80%, quoting the words of demographer Alexei Raksh.

The Russian authorities reacted very sharply to this. The Russian embassies in the USA and Britain demanded that the publications refute the findings. The Russian parliament demanded that the NYT and FT be denied accreditation and the Russian repressive machine -Roskomnadzor (the Russian federal executive body responsible for censorship in media and telecommunications, which is analogous to George Orwell’s “1984” Ministry of Truth) began to check these articles for fake information. Roskomnadzor did not block the NYT and FT sites but sent a Google request to block the MBX media article on mortality rates, based on reports in the Financial Times. The decision was made by the Prosecutor General of Russia because of “calls for riots, extremist activities, and participation in mass (public) events held in violation of the established order”.

Medusa published the most extensive investigation on 14 May. Its main conclusion is that the statistics of coronavirus deaths quoted by the federal authorities is underestimated precisely at the stage of autopsy by pathologists. At the slightest opportunity, the main cause of death is not indicated as coronavirus and it is these data that fall into the summary statistics. At the same time, the Moscow Mayor’s office explained to “Interfax” that the matter lies in the exceptional accuracy in registering deaths by Russian pathologists. It was revealed that over 60% of deaths were caused by “obvious alternative causes”. That is, in the official statistics of deaths from COVID-19 in Russia, only those where coronavirus became the actual cause of death, and subsequent complications, are registered in Russia. However, as is widely known, most of the deaths due to infection with coronavirus occur precisely from the complication of other illnesses and not because of the coronavirus itself. As a result, no more than one-third of the total number of patients who died “with coronavirus” appears on the main page of the official health website, says demographer Timoni (i.e. only those who have been diagnosed by pathologists with COVID-19 as the initial cause of death).

But even this is not considered the main problem. The instructions themselves, sent to pathologists, contribute to the conscious concealment of deaths from COVID-19 in the field, in order to fulfil orders from the centre. It is reported that at the beginning of the epidemic, pathologists were sent directives that the number of infected COVID-19 was not to be more than 5 people per day!

One of the founders of the Data Insight research agency, Boris Ovchinnikov, noted suspicious data after analysing official figures on the increase in the number of cases of COVID-19. From 30 April to 25 May, the number of detected cases ended four times with the figure of ’99’!  The federal operational headquarters reported that on April 30, 7,099 people were found to have the coronavirus, 10,699 on May 8, 10,899 on May 12 and 8,599 on May 24! The analyst considered such a coincidence unlikely, and the figures were “corrected” by the authorities.

Doctors’ work

Although official mortality from coronavirus is lower than in other countries, the percentage of doctors who die has reached catastrophic proportions. The “Memory List”, which is maintained by the relatives and friends of the deceased doctors, includes 302 dead medical workers. (However, it lists all Russian doctors who died during the COVID-19 pandemic without considering the causes of death). According to the estimates of the “MediaZona” publication, on 19 May, at least 186 doctors and other health workers died due to the infection.

The most difficult situation is in Dagestan, where, according to the publication, 34 medical workers have died. But a week ago, the local Ministry of Health recognised the death of 40 Dagestan doctors. If the figure “MediaZona” gives is correct, in Russia the death rate among doctors is 7% of the total number of infected people, which is 16 times higher than in six countries comparable to Russia in terms of the epidemic. Meanwhile, on 26 May, the Ministry of Health recognised the death of only 101 health workers.

On 26 May, the head of the inter-departmental working group on countering the spread of coronavirus in St. Petersburg, Evgeny Shlyakhto, Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that about 3,000 medical workers were infected in St. Petersburg, while the total number of cases in the city was 35,000. The reason for the high level of infection lies in the lack of personal protective equipment.

The Medical Workers’ Union, “Deystviye”, which is part of the Confederation of Labour of Russia (an association of Russian independent trade unions), states that poorly organised work is related to high mortality rates. Journalists at MediaZona explain the high mortality of doctors by the underestimation of the general official statistics on mortality from coronavirus and the high risks that Russian doctors have when dealing with patients with COVID-19. (Above all, this is a lack of protective equipment, which doctors and nurses have repeatedly complained about in Russia).

In an attempt to somehow circumvent the one-sidedness of their superiors and the authorities, Russian doctors have recorded appeals to the president and the government. These appeals are posted on the Internet, to reach the public. But the medical staff are intimidated and threatened with dismissal. Charity funds have been raising money for several months to buy personal protective equipment for doctors. But the leadership of many hospitals is afraid to ask for help because this will indicate that the regional authorities are not coping with the situation.

In his address on 11 May, President Vladimir Putin said that less than half of health workers had received the promised payments. Against this background, calls for the heroism of doctors, the erection of monuments and various support actions look simply wretched.

Festival in a time of plague

However, while the promised payments are not paid to the doctors and the means of protection are not issued, it is, we are told, time to think about a military parade! This year is a jubilee; 75 years have passed since the surrender of Nazi Germany and the victory of the USSR. This means that the celebrations must be held absolutely necessarily, and with the maximum scope! The annual military parade was supposed to be held as always on May 9 on Red Square in Moscow but was postponed until 24 June.

From March to April, during the start of the spread of coronavirus, parade rehearsals took place. According to the publication, Project, more than 300 cadets who rehearsed for the May 9 parade became ill. For a long time, the authorities did not want to cancel the traditional annual military parade, but after this incident, it was cancelled. (In Belarus, where the authorities prefer not to think about COVID-19, the parade was held without any precautions being taken!) The Ministry of Defence is doing everything possible to cover up the incident of the mass infection of cadets.

Military parades for these occasions cost an astronomical amount of money, which is spent on modern military equipment. For example, the Victory Day parade of 2015 cost more than 800 million roubles (11 million dollars). It is simply an absurd idea to hold an expensive parade in a situation where the economy of Russia and the rest of the world are suffering huge losses, and doctors do not have enough protective equipment to work with infected people!

In addition to the parade itself, numerous rehearsals will be held, and the day of the parade itself has been declared non-working for public events. In this situation, it is a tragedy for the residents of Moscow, because the epidemic there has almost passed, and the quarantine will be lifted on June 15th. Is all this really necessary in order to risk a new outbreak, and with it a new quarantine?

Ending self-isolation

On 11 May, the number of patients with coronavirus reached its peak, and Russia came in second place in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases worldwide. To cancel the regime of self-isolation at the very moment when the coronavirus was in full swing seemed to everyone a very strange decision. The answer is simple: the government tripped up on its own indecisive measures, and the capitalists forced the government to end the days off from work, as soon as possible, despite all the threats to safety.

An English BBC publication notes that the initiator of the removal of the non-working days was lobbied personally by the acting Premier, Andrei Belousov. According to the chairman of ‘Delovaya Rossiya’, Alexei Repik, it was big business that asked Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and his deputy, Belousov, to end the self-isolation regime after the May holidays (May 1 and May 9). Small businesses suffered enormous losses, according to experts; 30% of small businesses in Russia will close due to the COVID-19 epidemic.

The ending of the self-isolation regime leaves behind it millions of unemployed. In his address, Putin said the number of unemployed has doubled. The Confederation of Labour of Russia, the association of independent trade unions, is talking about an increase from four million unemployed in April to eight million in May. This includes those who went on unpaid leave. The oligarchs, meanwhile, have only become richer. According to Forbes, the wealthiest Russians grew richer by $62 billion during the pandemic, and the number of Russian dollar billionaires exceeded 100 people.

Opinion

The results of government measures are clearly shown by the statistics in relation to people’s opinions. Almost half of the Russians surveyed – 48 percent – do not approve of the actions of the president and the government to combat the epidemic of coronavirus infection. This study was conducted by the analytical organisation ‘Levada-Center’. At the same time, the majority of these (30 percent) call the actions of the federal authorities insufficient and 18 percent consider them excessive.

In large cities, the level of dissatisfaction with Kremlin measures to combat coronavirus is even higher at 61 percent. Moreover, 40 percent of respondents believe that the measures taken are not enough. The head of the Levada-Center, Lev Gudkov, in an interview with Business Online, suggested that, in two months, mass protests against quarantine measures could begin in Russia.

Such a turn will be inevitable. Only an active political position taken by workers is able to correct the current situation. Against this background, the most significant development is the gas workers’ strike at the Chayanda field. Only after a strike and protests by the workers did the authorities decide to evacuate them from the place of infection and do mass checks for the presence of COVID-19.

The oil workers of the Tengiz field in Kazakhstan found themselves in the same situation, where mass infection also occurred. However, Tengiz is where labour conflicts often occur and have long been known for the tough position of the workers. The authorities decided to immediately evacuate half of the workers. Despite this, back in April, Tengiz oil workers went on strike against the measures taken by employers.

The situation with doctors is much more deplorable. Under Russian law, doctors are not allowed to go on strike. The most powerful structure for protecting the interests of doctors, which is not afraid of political questions, is the Alyans Vrachei (Doctors’ Alliance). But, unfortunately, politically, this organisation is looking entirely to the liberal oppositionist, Alexei Navalny. Russian physicians lack strong trade unions, and there is no mass party of labour protecting the interests of all workers. Despite this, the crisis and general distrust of the authorities, workers are forced to seek a way out of the situation, to unite and pursue their interests.

 

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