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How Russia Became the Next COVID-19 Hot Spot: Infection Rate Soars with 10,000 New Cases Each Day

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We go to Moscow for an update on the pandemic in Russia, where the coronavirus is spreading rapidly, with at least 10,000 new cases a day and the second-highest infection rate in the world, and more than 100 medical workers have died fighting the virus, and many have reported lack of personal protective equipment. Meanwhile, three Russian healthcare workers mysteriously fell from hospital windows over the past two weeks. Two died, and the one who is hospitalized had posted a video online to note the lack of medical equipment and said he had to keep working despite testing positive. We speak with Joshua Yaffa, Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker magazine.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, here in the epicenter of the pandemic, broadcasting from the studio. Co-host Nermeen Shaikh is broadcasting from home to protect against community spread. Hi, Nermeen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Good morning, Amy. And welcome to our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re turning first to Russia, where the coronavirus is spreading rapidly, with a rate of new infections that’s the highest in Europe and second only to the United States worldwide. After weeks of reporting a seemingly low number of cases, infections have exploded in Russia this week, with 10,000 new cases a day since Sunday. The number of reported cases is more than 177,000, with more than half the infections in the capital Moscow. But Moscow’s mayor says the numbers there are likely three times higher than reported. Meanwhile, Russia’s COVID-19 death toll has passed 1,500.

More than 100 medical workers have died fighting the virus, and many have reported lack of personal protective equipment. Three doctors mysteriously fell from hospital windows over the past two weeks. Two of them have died; one is hospitalized. The hospitalized doctor previously posted a video on social media calling out the lack of medical equipment and the fact he had to keep working despite testing positive for COVID-19. Russian authorities say they’re investigating all three cases.

This comes as the Russian prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, who had been appointed by President Vladimir Putin to lead the response to the virus, has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and is self-isolating. Two other Cabinet members have also tested positive for the virus.

On Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia should not rush to lift coronavirus-related restrictions.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] The coronavirus preventative measures need to be preserved or be expanded. Somewhere, it is possible to plan the reasonable lifting, but only based on the opinion of scientists and specialists while taking into account all factors and possible risks. I emphasize again that we must not rush to lift coronavirus-related restrictions. Any negligence or haste can result into a breakdown or a step backward. The price of the slightest mistake is the safety, lives and health of our people.

AMY GOODMAN: Putin’s approval rating has dropped to 59%, the lowest it’s been in 20 years.

For more, we go to Moscow, where we’re joined by Joshua Yaffa. He’s The New Yorker's Moscow correspondent and the author of _Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin's Russia_.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Joshua. It’s great to have you with us. Why don’t you just lay out the landscape for us during this pandemic? How has Russia been affected, as we hear about 10,000 new infections in the last 24 hours?

JOSHUA YAFFA: Sure. The trajectory is much as you outlined in your introduction. Throughout March, Russia looked like it had — and did have — a relatively low number of at least officially recognized cases. At a time when cases were spiking in much of Europe and beginning to spike in the U.S., New York especially, Russia had a few hundred cases. And it looked like either Russia was going to get a delayed — the national-level epidemic in Russia would come with some delay, or maybe Russia might avoid the worst effects of the pandemic, as we’ve actually seen in some countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

A month and change later, it now seems that the answer is pretty clear. It’s that Russia just was a bit slower in dealing with or facing the full brunt of this pandemic, but it’s facing it quite dramatically, with statistics that you laid out in the introduction, that the rate of growth of new cases is now second in the world only to the United States — a kind of superpower competition that neither side, I’m sure, wants to be winning. But with over 10,000 new cases announced every day, that puts Russia in the number two position, bringing its total number of cases to over 177,000, also putting Russia in the top, I think, six or seven for overall cases throughout the entirety of this pandemic.

And it remains largely, though not exclusively, a Moscow phenomenon. Like in London in the U.K. and New York in the U.S., the capital and major globally connected metropolis is the epicenter of the epidemic. About half or even more of all known cases in Russia are in Moscow. And every day, when that new case count is released, about half or more are Moscow cases.

So, it’s very much a tale of two countries. You have Moscow, which is being extraordinarily hard hit, and then you have the rest of the country, where you do have isolated pockets of infection. I wrote a story for The New Yorker last week about infection clusters that were breaking out at some of the remote oil and gas fields in Siberia and the Far North and in the Arctic, where you have workers living in very cramped conditions, turning those worksites into hot spots. And I think that’s the main worry for the Russian government, going forward, is how much does coronavirus, on the Russian scale, continue to be a Moscow issue, and how much does it turn into a nationwide one, like in so many capital cities around the world, but, I think, in Russia all the more dramatically.

Moscow is a very different place than the rest of Russia, especially when it comes to things like infrastructure, per capita spending on healthcare, and other measures, transport, other infrastructure questions. So, you haven’t necessarily seen Moscow hospitals stretched beyond the breaking point. They have been pushed to their limit. You’ve seen announcements from hospital directors, as well as more informal announcements on social media and elsewhere from doctors themselves, about being pushed really up into the limit. But still, perhaps, Moscow hospitals are able to manage even this spiking caseload. It’s a different story entirely when it gets to the provincial regions in Russia. And if the national-scale epidemic begins to filter out into the regions in big numbers, I think that’s going to be a much more dangerous and potentially disastrous story for Russia.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Joshua, in a piece that you wrote earlier this year, in March, you talked about various people whom you had spoken to in different parts of Russia who told of having coronavirus symptoms, attempting to get tested, and not being able to be tested for coronavirus. Now, we know testing has been a major problem across the world, including, of course, in the U.S. So could you say a little now about what access to testing is like in Russia and to what extent that accounts for reports of these 10,000 infections, for example, in the last 24 hours?

JOSHUA YAFFA: Sure. Like you mentioned, testing was a problem in Russia in early and mid-March, just like it was a problem everywhere. There didn’t seem to be many countries in the world at that period that were able to keep up with testing demand. And indeed, I heard lots of cases of people who seemed to be suffering from the classic, as we now know them, coronavirus symptoms, who weren’t able to get a test.

Testing is far from perfect now, but it’s certainly been ramped up extensively. Moscow city is claiming that it’s doing about 40,000, I think, or 50,000 tests a day. Testing has become much more widespread, while still not coming anywhere close to capturing the actual need.

The Moscow city government does put forward this argument that the reason you’re seeing such a spike in cases is that now the testing resources and the ability to test has been built up to a level where they can go out into the population and test people, and so the numbers are not necessarily — are reflective of increased testing rather than a spiking spread of the virus. But that’s impossible to check. The Moscow city government is very much a part of the Kremlin overall political machine, run by a mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, who is very much a loyal member of Putin’s political inner circle, even as this mayor, Sobyanin, has emerged as a somewhat, if not exactly independent, then a kind of parallel voice and source of authority in dealing with coronavirus, at least here in Moscow. But very hard to fact-check some of these claims coming out of the Moscow city government.

But that does say — the Moscow city government is saying, for example, that about half the cases being identified these days, people testing positive, are asymptomatic. In other words, that suggests, at least in Moscow, the testing is able to get out into wider segments of the population, not just people who are showing up at hospitals who are sick. And we’ve also seen relatively young ages of those testing positive, people under 40 or 50, which also suggests that it’s not just the very sick who are being tested, but there’s a kind of proactive testing regime.

Though, just like everywhere, as I’ve been saying, it’s obvious that the official numbers, people who have tested positive, nowhere matches the real caseload. And you even had Moscow’s mayor, Sobyanin, this figure I’ve referred to, today in an interview reveal that, according to his own or the mayor’s office’s own estimations, the real number of those infected in Moscow alone is about 2 or 2.5% of the population, so 300,000 people. That’s more than three times the 80,000 people who are officially registered as coronavirus-positive in the capital.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Joshua, could you also talk about the cuts that were made to Russia’s healthcare service and how that’s impacted Russia’s response to this crisis? I mean, there have been reports of ambulance drivers having to wait for hours outside emergency wards before the patients that they have in the ambulances are let in.

JOSHUA YAFFA: Sure. Like I said, the story of Russian healthcare really varies whether you’re talking about the center of Moscow or the regions. And those provincial regions have been especially hard hit by a series of reforms that are known or were called, somewhat euphemistically or Orwellian, “optimization.” There was an “optimization,” in quotes, program in the Russian healthcare system in recent years, which resulted in, among other things, the closing of regional and provincial healthcare centers, merging of various hospitals into one, essentially depriving localities that had long had a hospital or a clinic in their areas, leaving them without one, forcing people to travel further distances. So, all of that, of course, weighs very heavily in a negative way when you have a global pandemic hit the country.

And I think that’s why it will be so important, and potentially disastrous, if this goes the wrong way. If the virus reaches into those provincial locations, you just don’t have hospitals and doctors who are equipped to deal with them. You’ve already had a number of doctors in the regions make appeals, through social media and elsewhere, talking about the lack of protective equipment, being forced to work excruciatingly long shifts without the necessary safety measures and without the necessary equipment and gear in the hospitals to treat and care for patients. So, healthcare has really been an area that’s, if not been neglected, maybe you could say was even targeted, actually, for budget cuts and austerity in Russia in the past several years, which, again, leaves them in a very vulnerable way in terms of dealing with coronavirus.

AMY GOODMAN: Joshua, could you talk about these three doctors that, what, mysteriously fell out of hospital windows after complaining about the lack of protective gear? Talk about where this happened and what’s happening with doctors. Two of them died; one of them is in critical condition.

JOSHUA YAFFA: Sure. That’s happened — there was one case just outside of Moscow, another one in Siberia, and a third, I believe, down in southern Russia. As you said, all those doctors in some way either spoke out about what they were observing with coronavirus in their own facilities — in the case of this young ambulance driver, recorded a video talking about the lack of protective equipment. Quite curiously, he then surfaced — this was before his fall — to record another video in which he took back his words, leading many to believe he had been pressured by the authorities or his higher-ups into recording that second video in which he recanted his earlier criticisms.

Other than that, though, it’s very hard to say what exactly happened in those three cases. I know myself and other journalists, both Western and Russian, have been looking into those cases, trying to talk with friends, colleagues, doctors who cared for these individuals, to try and understand what the circumstances of these — whether they were accidents or something more nefarious.

I think it’s worth remembering that, sadly and tragically, suicides of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers is a phenomenon we’re seeing in the West. There’s been a number of cases in the U.K. There’s been a number of cases in the U.S., as well. So there is a dark precedent for medical personnel taking their own lives, people who are at the frontlines of dealing with coronavirus.

But as to what actually happened in these three cases, we just don’t have enough information yet. As I said, I know myself and other people are trying to get to the bottom of these cases. But to say anything more would just be speculation, frankly, at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask you about Putin himself and his whole approach to this. I mean, of course, here in the United States, we’re the epicenter of the pandemic in the world, but Russia is moving up quickly. It has the highest rate of new infections in Europe, the second highest in the world. Can you talk about how he responded at first, and then, overall, as you’re saying, the difference between what’s happening in Moscow, where the infection rate is considered extremely high, and in other places, even in the closed cities, for example, that make plutonium, where we hardly know anything about them, what would be happening now?

JOSHUA YAFFA: Sure. You know, what’s been interesting to observe, for people like myself who watch Russia closely and watch Putin closely, is how hands-off, almost absent, he’s been at various points of this crisis. We’re used to thinking of Putin as this very decisive, almost omnipotent leader who inserts himself into any crisis and extracts maximal personal advantage from it by being the one who is seen to, in his own way, resolve that crisis, again, to his advantage. And we haven’t seen that here. Putin actually has taken a somewhat backseat, or allowed himself, very conspicuously, to take a backseat, putting other people in charge. You mentioned the prime minister, Mishustin, who now himself has come down with coronavirus and is at a hospital in Moscow, as well as the Moscow mayor, Sobyanin, who has really emerged as one of the more forceful, or at least visible, government officials in dealing with coronavirus.

You know, I’ve heard various explanations for why Putin has chosen to, at least relatively speaking, sit this one out or not seize the reins in the way we have seen him in previous crises. One explanation is that, essentially, at this stage in Putin’s rule, 20 years in, he sees himself as a kind of historic, almost messianic figure. What interests him are the questions of big geopolitics, engaging in negotiations with the OPEC cartel, managing Trump, reasserting Russian will and influence in Europe, and that the virus, to him, has seemed a kind of technical question not totally on the level that he sees his own rule at this point.

Another reason just gets to the nature of Machiavellian political calculation. There’s no guarantee, as we’ve seen in recent days, that the virus is going to decrease or in some way dissipate in Russia anytime soon. The effects could be very damaging, not just the health effects, but, in fact, the economic effects. Russia is expected to go into a recession this year. The coronavirus global downturn, paired with the collapse in oil prices, is hitting the Russian economy especially hard. So it’s quite possible that Putin decided that being in charge right now is a kind of poisoned chalice, that you’re only actually likely to lose popularity and legitimacy, and so he’s purposely allowing other officials to take the lead, and therefore, potentially, take the blame.

But it has been interesting to see how Putin has not been front and center here, but, again, let these other officials lead — or, rather, not even lead, because there isn’t really a coherent nationwide strategy. It’s hard to talk about one top-down policy flowing from Putin and the Kremlin all the way around the country, which leads to, as you alluded to in your question — we’ve talked a bit about very disparate and kind of helter-skelter outbreaks throughout the country.

Moscow, of course, is the country’s main hot spot. But beyond that, you see these outcroppings of cases in places like the remote oil and gas fields of Siberia and the Arctic, a number of regional hospitals, including in the Komi Republic, a northern republic near the Arctic Circle. Hospitals there became kind of super-spreading locations of the virus, like we’ve seen, sadly, in lots of other countries. So, the virus is popping up in somewhat random and unexpected places throughout the rest of the country. And if those points begin to connect, and if the virus really seeps into the regions in a more widespread way, as we’ve been saying, that could be something that proves even more difficult for the Russian authorities to manage than a local or national epidemic that so far is largely Moscow-based.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Joshua, I want to ask about the kind of response from Russians to how the government has dealt with this crisis. There are dozens of online protests demanding greater financial assistance and compensation. A fifth of employees, 20% of employees, in Russia have already been either — have already lost their jobs or are on unpaid leave. What kind of financial safety net has the government provided? And then, second, you mentioned the economic impact of this crisis and the oil industry. I mean, the oil industry in Russia employs, I think, something like a million workers. So, could you talk about both these things, what kind of —

JOSHUA YAFFA: Sure.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: — a safety net the Russian government has provided for those who have lost their jobs, and the impact of the combination of the collapse of oil prices and the coronavirus emergency?

JOSHUA YAFFA: Sure. To your first question, there, frankly, haven’t been many measures at all, which is leading, in my estimation, more to the downtick in Putin’s popularity — not the spread of the virus itself, but, rather, the spillover economic effects that aren’t really being dealt with in a coherent, top-down way. I think that’s proving more — taking more of a hit on Putin’s rating than even the virus.

As I talked about in my answer to the previous question, in Putin’s somewhat absent or not very forceful response, what he’s done is he’s announced a series of so-called nonworking holidays for the country. These aren’t official quarantines; that’s left up to governors and mayors. It’s Moscow’s mayor, who I’ve been talking about, who actually decreed that in the city of Moscow there would be a quarantine. All Putin has done is announce this rolling series of nonworking holidays.

And what that means is that the government does not obligate itself to pay any sort of wide-scale compensation, not to employers and not to employees. Putin has said no one should lose their job as a result of this crisis, that all employers should continue to pay salaries. But with the Russian government not providing wide-scale economic relief for those employers, for small and medium businesses, there simply isn’t any money to pay those employees. So it’s a bit of a paradox that the Kremlin hasn’t really resolved.

And I think it’s growing economic frustrations that are leading to that sort of — if not exactly protest mood, because there isn’t really anywhere or any way to protest right now. And that may be one thing that helps the Kremlin squeak through this crisis, even if support for Putin and its policies continue to fall. It’s not just difficult, but impossible, to gather people in the street right now for a protest.

As to the question about oil, I think what’s more important financially for Russia is not even the amount of people employed in the oil and gas sector — relatively speaking, the extraction of oil and gas is a pretty labor-unintensive enterprise compared to other forms of economic activity — but it’s extraordinarily important for the Russian budget. And I believe a half or more than half of all Russian workers, one way or another, depend on the Russian budget. They could be considered state employees in one form or another. So, having money in the federal budget to then distribute around the country, that’s what’s extraordinarily important. Historically, or in recent years, the Russian budget has been balanced, I think, at about $40 or $45 per barrel of oil. Of course, oil has gone much lower than that in recent weeks, stabilized a bit. But if oil stays low for a considerable amount of time, that’s going to really take a big chunk out of the Russian budget. And it’s the ability to spread that budget money around the country that has been an important factor for 20 years of relative, if not stability, then at least longevity of the Putin system.

AMY GOODMAN: Joshua Yaffa, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker magazine, author of Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia.

When we come back, we look at patents versus the pandemic. We’ll speak with the writer who says we’ll find a treatment for coronavirus, but drug companies will decide who gets it. Stay with us. We’re going to Bangalore, India.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “The Drunk and the Equilibrist,” sung by Elis Regina and composed by the great Brazilian songwriter Aldir Blanc, who died Monday at the age of 73 from COVID-19.

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