On Monday, May 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the easing of coronavirus lockdown measures in order to restart the economy. He said each region of the country would proceed according to their specific situation. Putin spoke with Russia’s federal ministers and regional governors via teleconference from his residence outside Moscow.
Putin said the six-week lockdown he ordered on March 30 helped “slow down” the pandemic and provide time to prepare the health system in the regions, which were now stocked with additional equipment and supplies, significantly more than needed. None of the governors interrupted or objected.
“Every region of the country is ready and has everything necessary to provide specialized [care], including intensive care, to people with severe complications. I emphasize – to practically everyone who needs it,” Putin said.
The claim is misleading.
Doctors in Russia began complaining about shortages of “absolutely everything” in early March, according to reports by independent media. By late April, they were saying they had to treat coronavirus patients without protective equipment as COVID-19 deaths and infections among the health care workers crept higher.
Did that change during the lockdown, as Putin claimed?
Manufacture of ventilators was expedited, with Russia’s state-owned Channel 1 reporting that the factory producing them was working round the clock, producing 100 a day instead of the regular 10, and planning to produce up to 6,000 a month.
But then came reports that these Russia-made ventilators exploded in the intensive care units of two hospitals – one in Moscow, the other in St. Petersburg – killing six coronavirus patients. The Russian authorities said they launched an investigation.
A shipment of the same model ventilators was sent to the U.S. in April. However, they reportedly went unused in hospitals because of their different voltages.
The independent Russian news agency Meduza.io reported on May 13 that 83 percent of doctors working with the coronavirus patients in Russian hospitals said personal protective equipment was either in short supply or unavailable. Meduza said its report was based on a poll conducted by the social network “Doctor at Work” and the TV channel “Doctor” on May 1-2.
Russia is also facing a shortage of health care specialists. Doctors have quit in large numbers and others have refused to treat coronavirus-infected patients over concerns for their personal safety, the Moscow Times reported on May 11.
Putin promised hospital personnel treating coronavirus patients financial bonuses. When the checks arrived, they were less than promised, adding to the doctors’ and nurses’ frustration.
Some commentators say Putin, with his spokesman Dmitry Peskov having tested positive for COVID-19 and his approval ratings having fallen to an all-time low (59 percent), may be delegating the COVID-19 response to Russia's regional governors because he is unable to effectively lead from Moscow.
Doctors who complained about supply shortages have mysteriously fallen out of windows and died while others have been attacked, arrested, and investigated. Journalists have been attacked and beaten for reporting from hospitals while the Russian state media watchdog bans their articles.
Foreign media operating in Russia have not been immune from official interference. On May 13, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova demanded that the Financial Times and The New York Times change their estimates of Russia’s COVID-19 mortality rate because they were higher than the Russian government’s statistics.