MOSCOW - Russia reported record numbers of infections and deaths from the novel coronavirus on Thursday, the latest sign that the country is again struggling to contain an outbreak that Kremlin officials only recently portrayed as largely under control.
The state coronavirus task force recorded 17, 717 new infections and 366 deaths on Thursday alone, raising the national tally to more than 1.5 million cases and 27,301 fatalities from the global contagion.
Russia currently is fourth in the global rankings for coronavirus infections, behind Brazil, India and the United States.
But despite what a Kremlin spokesman described as “maximum pressure” on the nation’s health care system, President Vladimir Putin on Thursday assured Russians there would be no repeat of a spring lockdown that hobbled the economy and sent his approval ratings tumbling.
“We’re not planning to introduce total restrictive measures and order a so-called national lockdown where the economy and business essentially stop completely,” said Putin, speaking by video to an annual investment forum.
Putin’s decision to designate an extended “non-working holiday” in April was generally credited by health officials with helping contain the virus but widely panned by Russian citizens for failing to provide enough economic support to families and businesses.
The Russian leader maintains that the health of citizens remains the government’s main priority.
Moscow vs. regions
In Moscow — Russia’s largest city and the center of the country’s outbreak — Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has introduced limited measures aimed at containing a second wave of infections.
As of this month, masks and gloves are again mandatory on public transport. The city introduced required distance learning for high school students. Businesses, too, are now required to have one-third of their employees working remotely.
In comments on local television Thursday, Sobyanin argued those measures were beginning to pay off.
“This week we’re seeing figures that are lower than those from the week before. That tells us that there’s no more sharp escalation in Moscow. It’s stabilizing,” said Sobyanin.
But while Moscow has vast financial resources, the situation in what Russians call “the regions” — the rest of the country — appears infinitely more dire.
On Wednesday, the Kremlin’s point person on the coronavirus response, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova, said that hospital bed capacity was at 90% in 16 regions, suggesting already underfunded health care systems were at the breaking point.
The announcement came as Russia’s Ministry of Health issued a directive forbidding medical professionals to speak with the news media about coronavirus-related issues.
Ministry officials said the move was intended to “heighten effectiveness” in informing the public on preventing the spread.
Yet the newly introduced rule immediately raised a concern that has dogged the Kremlin response from the very outset of the pandemic: What if the government was simply trying to hide the scale of the problem?
The mandate followed a wave of grim coronavirus-related stories to emerge from various swaths of the country in recent days:
In Barnaul, a leaked video from the city’s local coronavirus infection ward earlier this month showed what appeared to be dozens of bodies in plastic bags cast about the hospital’s basement corridor.
Local media later reported the overflow was due to relatives' inability to collect the deceased for burial because pathology reports had yet to be issued — morgues were already full. The city administration later described the scene as a “temporary storage” solution.
In Omsk, ambulance workers delivered COVID-19 patients directly to the steps of the local health ministry, explaining that despite 10 hours of searching local hospitals, they had been unable to find a single facility with available space to accept the patients. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.
In the Kurgan region in the Ural Mountains, the defense ministry sent a rapid force group of army medics to aid in the virus response, after doctors made a public plea to Putin, citing a shortage of hospital space and staff and overloaded ambulances.
Pleading for oxygen
In Rostov-on-Don, in Russia’s south, doctors reported 13 deaths in a local hospital because of a lack of oxygen tanks for ventilators. The patients died pleading for oxygen, according to physicians on the scene.
In Ufa — where health care workers and activists had accused officials of downplaying infections during an outbreak earlier this year — authorities acknowledged the city’s mayor died this week after a monthlong bout with the coronavirus.
Kremlin officials have argued individual horror stories fail to tell the larger success of the government’s coronavirus response.
Putin has also endorsed the rollout of “Sputnik V,” a Russia-produced vaccine against the coronavirus that the Kremlin says will be available beginning in December.
Global health experts, however, caution the Kremlin has embraced the vaccine before it passes standard Stage 3 trials for efficacy.
Larger group testing of the drug is under way in Moscow.
Whether the vaccine proves effective, observers warned, many Russians should accept that the coming weeks will be as grim as those before it.
“We’re becoming used to images from hell,” wrote political observer Anton Orekh on the Echo of Moscow website.
“You’re better off staying home and taking garlic,” Orekh said, in a joking reference to an old Russian folk remedy.
“There aren’t any places in the hospital anyway.”