The coronavirus pandemic has put the spotlight on the risks faced by frontline health workers, and Russia is no exception. Medical facilities in the country have emerged as one of the main breeding grounds for Covid-19, and two dozen hospitals have had to shut down for long quarantines, with many doctors falling sick.
The numbers are stark. On Thursday, Russia’s total number of reported coronavirus cases surpassed the 100,000 mark, exceeding numbers reported from Iran and China. And of 285 coronavirus hotspots the country is trying to contain, 64% are in hospitals, said Alexander Gorelov, an epidemiologist at the state wellbeing agency Rospotrebnadzor, at a recent meeting chaired by President Vladimir Putin.
For weeks, Russian independent media and non-governmental organizations have reported anonymous pleas from outraged medical workers who said they had been ordered to the frontlines of a public health crisis without adequate protection, and that bureaucratic foot-dragging was costing lives. As the situation worsens, many have become more outspoken, sometimes risking legal action against them.
One high-profile example is St. Petersburg’s Vreden Institute for Traumatology and Orthopedics. Three weeks ago, authorities ordered around 500 patients and medical personnel into lockdown amid a coronavirus outbreak, with the local press dubbing the hospital “Russia’s Diamond Princess” — a reference to the cruise ship that docked in Japan after a massive onboard outbreak.
Initially, the quarantine was supposed to end last week, but public health officials later said the center will stay closed “until further notice.” On Sunday, April 26, a health worker at the hospital posted a cry for help on YouTube.
“I’m coughing, my chest hurts but there is no one to look at it… there is no treatment and no medicine,” the woman said. “No one came to check on us, how we feel, what is the plan for us … when will this end?”
Approximately, 300 people inside Vreden Institute have contracted Covid-19, Rashid Tikhilov, the head of the hospital, told the state-run news agency TASS.
Head of the spinal surgery ward in that hospital, Dmitry Ptashnikov, said in an Instagram post all doctors in his department contracted the coronavirus. In an interview with Kommersant daily, he said the first Covid-19 case was diagnosed April 9th using CT scans but the actual test confirmation came later.
The Vreden Institute is not the only hospital dealing with this. At least 23 wards across Russia had to shut down for quarantine in April.
Some of the quarantined wards were designated for Covid-19, but the majority were regular hospitals, maternity clinics or psychiatric wards where the coronavirus patients were first admitted with other health issues, and where doctors did not have personal protective equipment (PPE), according to reports by the Alliance of Doctors union.
Meanwhile, Putin has come under criticism at home for sending planeloads of protective gear to the United States, Italy, and Serbia, while some Russian doctors have had to sew their own masks and buy protective clothing from hardware stores, according to independent media and reports by the Action medical labor union.