Coronavirus will strain Russia’s already troubled health care system

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Aside from its ethnic cousins in Belarus or Ukraine, there may be no other European country less capable of combating the coronavirus pandemic than Russia.

To get a quick understanding why, it is only necessary to know that the average lifespan of a Russian male is 66 years. For comparison’s sake, the average Canadian male will live 15 years longer.

Russians, and especially Russian men (women outlive men in Russia on average by 11 years), have weak hearts, bad livers and high rates of cancer. Not a lot is yet known about COVID-19, but these three medical problems are known to make people more susceptible to complications from this pernicious infection.

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There is another reason why Russia may become the next big lethal nest for the coronavirus. The free public health care system that most of its 145 million people rely on has been in a state of perpetual collapse for decades.

This is of critical importance, because the coronavirus infection rate appears finally to be taking off in Russia. The number of infected in Moscow alone doubled to more than 6,500 this week. The number of newly infected was 3,448 on Thursday, second only to the United Kingdom, with the total number of dead increasing by 15 per cent on that one day.

It was the fifth consecutive one-day record.

Getting good health care anywhere in the country outside Moscow and St. Petersburg is a bit like playing Russian roulette. Leaving the country’s two largest cities is like taking a journey without maps.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Putin calls for partial lockdown to help control the spread of COVID-19'
Coronavirus outbreak: Putin calls for partial lockdown to help control the spread of COVID-19

I lived in Russia from 1990 to 1994 and from 200-2004, and I’ve been there scores of other times for extended stays. Visiting hospitals and clinics from Yakutsk, which styles itself the coldest city on earth, to Grozny in the restive Caucasus, I met doctors and nurses who devised their own, often imaginative and sometimes brilliant workarounds to solve their patients’ medical problems.

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These hardworking folks spoke bitterly about chronic shortages of drugs, modern diagnostic machines, intensive care beds, even bandages and how Moscow was favoured over the rest of the federation.

A Russian friend — a usually voluble American-educated physician who is immensely proud of his homeland and of Vladimir Putin and thinks his country will do a better job handling it than Canada — reluctantly confided to me that the quality of Russian health care outside the capital may not be up to the looming challenge. He expected parts of his country soon to be at the pandemic’s mercy, like parts of China, Italy, France, the U.K. and the U.S.

Until just days ago, President Vladimir Putin repeatedly offered bromides about how the coronavirus was well under control. This was so, he said, because in February he had personally ordered that Russia’s border with China be closed.

The president’s first and only public foray into the coronavirus netherworld was when he briefly posed at a hospital in March for one of his familiar man-of-action pictorials in a cosmonaut-like hazmat suit.

Click to play video: 'Putin wears hazmat suit at hospital, Moscow says coronavirus outbreak is worse than it looks'
Putin wears hazmat suit at hospital, Moscow says coronavirus outbreak is worse than it looks

Unlike Donald Trump, Putin is not given to making public U-turns. But the Russian strongman suddenly broke his uncharacteristic silence on the coronavirus during a video conference on Monday, to warn Russians of very difficult times ahead.

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The battle against the virus was, “changing practically every day, and unfortunately not for the better,” he said, before gravely concluding that the next few weeks would be “decisive.”

He added, “We don’t have anything especially to brag about and we definitely mustn’t relax.”

Just two weeks before, wanting to show his countrymen the situation was under control, he had the Russian military dispatch hundreds of medical workers and planeloads of supplies to Italy, which at the time appeared to be buckling under a crush of coronavirus patients.

The Russian president’s volte-face came two days after Reuters reported that ambulances were lined up for hours in long queues outside Moscow hospitals, waiting their turn to admit patients suffering from the frequently lethal virus.

Putin’s dramatic change of tone finally put him in sync with Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin. The mayor closed restaurants and bars in the capital on March 30 and ordered most of the city’s 12.5 million residents to stay inside their cramped apartments except when walking their dogs — with walks limited to 100 metres from their doors.

More recently, Sobyanin had Moscow police begin enforcing a system of digital passes authorizing only a small number of people to drive or to take public transport.

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Russia’s number of infected and dead, as of April 16, was 27,938 and 238, respectively. If these figures are accurate — the dead-to-infected ratio seems suspicious — the country is doing better than China and more recently Italy, France, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.

But unique circumstances prevail in Russia. Since the time of the czars, the country has not particularly made the well-being of its people a top priority. Despite fantastic oil wealth, a social safety net hardly exists.

And except for the massive enterprises owned by billionaire oligarchs, few businesses have the financial reserves to survive if shuttered for more than a few weeks.

Russia, like China, is effectively a totalitarian regime, a dictatorship. Russia, however, cannot dream of approaching China’s ability to track and deal with COVID-19 because China has far deeper pockets. Nor can it easily hide the number of its infected and dead for long because Russians publicly complain a lot more about their treatment by the state than the Chinese dare to.

However, while they may grumble, Russians unite in tremendous national pride on one day each year, May 9th, to celebrate their victory over Nazi Germany in “the Great Patriotic War,” in which perhaps 20 million or more Russians died. Russia’s military forces march en masse in a display of military might in a stirring Victory Day Parade in Moscow’s Red Square.

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This year marks the 75th anniversary of Victory Day and was to have been the biggest ever. It was to be, perhaps, the last time that many aged Russian veterans of the conflict would be able to attend.

But as with all aspects of life today, the spectre of coronavirus loomed over this great national occasion. A gathering so large could have proven deadly. After dithering for weeks as dress rehearsals for the centrepiece of Russia’s most popular national holiday were carried out, Putin finally postponed the parade on Thursday evening until an unnamed date later in the year.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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