An activist doctor who had criticized Russia's response to the coronavirus outbreak was forcibly detained as she and some of her colleagues tried to deliver protective gear to a hospital in need.
Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva of the Alliance of Doctors union was trying to take more than 500 masks, sanitizers, hazmat suits, gloves and protective glasses to a hospital in the Novgorod region about 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) northwest of Moscow on Thursday when she and the others were stopped by police on a highway.
They were accused by police of violating self-isolation regulations, currently in place in many regions, including Moscow and Novgorod. The group was taken to a police station and held for hours, and the activists had to ask hospital workers to come to the station to pick up the gear.
After a night in custody, Vasilyeva appeared in court on charges of defying police orders. Two long court hearings later, she was ordered to pay fines totaling the equivalent of $20.
"It was not about the money for them, It was about breaking me," Vasilyeva said afterward. "But I'm even more convinced that we're doing the right thing, and we will definitely keep on doing it."
Two weeks ago, Russia reported only a few hundred coronavirus cases and insisted the outbreak was under control. As the virus spread and more infections were reported this week, however, residents of Moscow and other cities were ordered to stay home.
On Friday, officials reported 4,149 cases in the country, four times more than a week ago. The government sought to reassure the public that Russia has everything it needs to fight the outbreak and even sent planeloads of protective gear and medical equipment to Italy, the U.S. and other countries. Still, hospitals across the country complained about shortages of equipment and supplies, and earlier this week, the union began a fundraising campaign to buy protective gear for hospitals.
Vasilyeva, who has become the most vocal critic of the Kremlin's response to the virus, accused authorities of playing down the scale of the outbreak and pressuring medics to work without sufficient protection.
"We realized that we can't just sit and watch; otherwise it is going to be too late," she said in a tweet Monday announcing the campaign.
After being released from the police station, Vasilyeva was almost immediately detained again and charged with defying police orders. Video posted on Twitter by activists shows a dozen police officers gathering around Vasilyeva and two of them dragging her into the station.
According to Ivan Konovalov, spokesman of the Alliance of Doctors, Vasilyeva was physically assaulted in the process and even fainted briefly. "We thought we may run into some difficulties, but no one could even imagine anything like that," said Konovalov, who accompanied Vasilyeva to the Novgorod region.
The incident elicited outrage from other activists.
"Why are they harassing this person, because she brought masks for the doctors? Bastards," tweeted opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who supports the Alliance of Doctors and works closely with Vasilyeva.
Natalia Zviagina, Russia director of Amnesty International, said in a statement that "it is staggering that the Russian authorities appear to fear criticism more than the deadly COVID-19 pandemic."
"By keeping her behind bars, they expose their true motive — they are willing to punish health professionals who dare contradict the official Russian narrative and expose flaws in the public health system," Zviagina said.
With the outbreak dominating the agenda in Russia, anyone who criticizes the country's struggling health system becomes a thorn in the Kremlin's side, said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter-turned-political analyst.
"The pressure will continue, because right now the most important political issue is on the table: How will the voters see the authorities after the crisis —as effective and acting in people's interests, or ineffective, out of touch with the people, and in need of being replaced?" Gallyamov said.
Doctors' unions say a shortage of protective equipment is one of the most pressing problems amid the outbreak. Konovalov said the Alliance of Doctors has gotten about 30 requests for protective gear from hospitals and medical facilities across Russia, and 100 more generic complaints about a lack of protective equipment.
Ambulance workers complain
Andrei Konoval, chairman of the Action medical union, echoed that sentiment.
"It is a serious problem that the authorities have started to solve, but not as fast as we want them to," Konoval said, adding that his union is getting complaints from ambulance workers, who are often the first to come in contact with potentially infected patients.
Russian authorities sought to put a good face on the crisis. The Health Ministry said the outbreak has so far taken a "fortunate" course, while the Defense Ministry said it was sending another 11 planes with medical specialists and equipment to Serbia, a close ally of Moscow.
In Moscow, which has the largest number of cases reported in the country, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was driven around the city in a van carrying an icon, praying for the epidemic to end. Media reports said the motorcade caused traffic jams as it traveled around the capital.