COVID-19 has transformed the world as we once knew it. Over the course of a few weeks countries diligently began to close their borders, halt production, reallocate public expenditures, and enforce ‘stay at home’ orders; all in an attempt to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus cases within their borders.
The United States, Brazil, and Russia have risen to the top of the charts for having the most confirmed COVID-19 cases. The speed with which they reached this status was remarkable.
Russia, in particular, has shocked the world with a dramatic increase in confirmed COVID cases. On April 1st, 2020 Russia had reported only 2,700 cases, this reached 106,400 by April 30th. By the beginning of June, there were over 415,000 cases. The epicentre of the national epidemic in Russia is Moscow, the biggest city in Europe, with a population of 13 million and about two-thirds of the country’s coronavirus cases.
So what happened?
How did this number grow so quickly?
And what does this mean for Russian citizens moving forward?
Before diving into these questions, it is important to note, Russia’s mortality rate is significantly lower than rates reported in other developed nations.
According to Johns Hopkins, Russia has claimed a mortality rate of just 1%. In comparison, Canada and the United States report a rate of over 6%, while Western Europe including Italy, France, Spain, Belgium and the UK have experienced a mortality rate over 10%. The precise reason for this discrepancy remains unclear.
Dr. Elena Malinnikova, the chief of infectious diseases in the Russian Ministry of Health explained that the low death toll is due to the speed and efficiency of detection and treatment within the Russian healthcare system. However, we do not know how Russia attributes death to Covid-19. In fact, on May 29th the Russian government presented more detailed mortality figures for last month that includes more deaths linked with the coronavirus. The April death toll under new criteria could be nearly 60% more than previously tallied.
With no mechanism to enforce a standardized method of data collection, the international community can only rely on the national reporting coming out of each country with regards to confirmed COVID cases and deaths. This could pose serious problems in the future once countries begin to open their borders again.
Compared to elsewhere in Europe and Asia, the impact of Covid-19 in Russia was delayed. During the month of February, dozens of cases were being reported in European countries. Besides one Chinese national treated in Siberia, no other cases were reported on Russian soil that month.
Illusions of Russia’s invulnerability to the disease dissipated over the month of March. On March 30th 2020 Russian President Vladimir Putin imposed a nationwide lockdown, and on May 12th 2020 the President decided to ease lockdown measures during the peak of COVID-19 cases. Over the past two decades, Putin has created the impression that he makes all the important decisions in Russia yet he seemed strangely absent during the COVID-19 crisis.
Over the course of the past 5 months, the pandemic has highlighted what has always been Putin’s biggest vulnerability: “a pronounced lack of interest or success in tackling intractable domestic problems like dilapidated hospitals, pockets of entrenched poverty and years of falling real incomes.”
COVID AND RUSSIAN HEALTHCARE
Inadequate health care funding has been a chronic issue in Russia for a long time. On paper, Russian citizens are entitled to free universal healthcare. In practice, it is commonplace for patients at state hospitals to bribe doctors for adequate treatment. The grim reality of Russian provincial state healthcare often has more in common with low-income countries than a supposed resurgent superpower: 17, 500 towns and villages across Russia have no medical infrastructure at all.
Between the beginning of 2013 and the end of 2019, Russia’s healthcare reform more than halved medical staff including junior nurses and orderlies and cut fully-fledged nursing staff by 9.3%. This has now prompted the deployment of medical students to hospitals strained by the pandemic. Medical students are playing a key role in the battle against COVID, shedding a light on the absence of resources in Russia’s health care system.
When understaffed and underfunded hospitals are met with a new global disease, the current state of affairs in Russian hospitals is not difficult to predict. Facing dire shortages of protective gear, 400 Russian hospitals suffered outbreaks of the coronavirus, and over 180 medical workers have lost their lives while fighting the pandemic. Doctors at Moscow’s top hospitals are reporting nearly overwhelming levels of infection among their colleagues.
RUSSIA’S TOP HEALTH OFFICIAL
Given the current state of affairs- what does Russia’s leading healthcare official have to say about it?
On March 20th 2020, Alexander Myasnikov, Russia’s current head of coronavirus information predicted that the COVID-19 epidemic should wane by mid-April, and called the coronavirus a “seasonal phenomenon.” Doctor and television presenter Alexander Myasnikov was appointed in April to his new role of informing Russians about coronavirus treatment and prevention methods and to battle “fake news” about Covid-19.
However, as recently as May 26th Myasnikov dismissed panic over the novel coronavirus as “bulls — t” in an interview with Russian television personality Ksenia Sobchak for her YouTube project. He continued saying, “It’s all exaggerated. It’s an acute respiratory disease with minimal mortality.”
It is reasonable to assume that Russia’s lack of preparedness and competing narratives has placed the wellbeing and lives of Russian citizens in jeopardy. Moving forward, the situation will challenge society and government while the ability of Russians’ propensity to prosper will be on full display
 Andrew Higgins (April, 2020). “Putin, Russia’s Man of Action, Is Passive, Even Bored, in the Coronavirus Era”. The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/30/world/europe/russia-putin-coronavirus.html