Pseudohealth

“You lie there wondering if the person coughing next to you has coronavirus”: Hospital patients defy Russian state narrative

Struggling, poorly equipped healthcare facilities could be aiding the spread of COVID-19 in Moscow

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  • PHOTO by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images
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A version of this piece is available in Russian

While Russian state television is broadcasting assurances of a smooth response to COVID-19, testimony is emerging from patients, who say that chaos and newly adopted protocols in some hospitals are helping to fuel the spread of the virus.

To date, Russia — a country of 144 million people — has confirmed just 438 cases of coronavirus and one death, raising widespread suspicion that it is grossly underreporting the seriousness of its outbreak. Meanwhile, public confidence in the state’s ability to adequately handle the pandemic is faltering.

Now, patients awaiting coronavirus test results at Moscow’s Infectious Disease Hospital No. 1 have reported that they were involuntarily confined on the same floor as people who were testing positive for COVID-19. 

One Moscow woman, Kristina Tkach, was forced to stay at Infectious Disease Hospital No. 1, while awaiting test results. On March 2, she detailed her experience on Instagram, claiming that 60 patients were sharing the same shower and toilet.

“You lie there and wonder whether the person next to you is coughing with pneumonia or coronavirus,” she told Coda Story. “New people are constantly being brought in and it’s not clear who has tested positive.”

Patients at the No. 1 Hospital continue to post information about poor conditions. In a written statement to Coda Story, however, Moscow’s Department of Health said that “intake and confinement conditions comply with medical standards.”

As the coronavirus continues to proliferate, governments in many countries are struggling to cope. Last week, a harrowing Sky News report showed wards packed with patients gasping for air at a hospital in Bergamo, Italy. Los Angeles has enlisted a Navy hospital ship to ease the burden on local healthcare facilities, the UK has called on retired medical staff to help treat patients, and hotels in Spain are being converted into hospitals.  

In Moscow, some patients exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 are also not being taken to hospitals designated to deal with the disease. One woman reports calling a doctor to her home after being informed that a passenger on a flight she had recently taken from Austria had tested positive for coronavirus. The doctor took samples from her to be tested and told her to wait for the results. Three days later, an ambulance and police car showed up, without warning, to take her away. 

Instead of being admitted to the slick, updated hospital that Russian state television reports is at the center of Moscow’s COVID-19 response, she was sent to a facility that specializes in dental surgery. She is still being held there with eight other patients. “No one understands what we are doing here,” she said. The woman tested negative for the virus today, after waiting six days for the results, but the hospital is still holding her for a second test.

She claims that when she said she was going to leave, a doctor told her that National Guard members stationed outside would move her to another hospital where “conditions are much worse.”

In Stavropol, a region in the south of Russia, a criminal case was opened on March 23 against an infectious disease specialist who failed to self-isolate after a trip to Spain, and came into contact with more than a thousand people, before testing positive for the coronavirus. Doctors suspect that at least 11 were infected, according to initial test results.

Doctors have already spoken out about the inadequate conditions at some Russian hospitals, including a lack of basic medical supplies and staff being forced to sterilize and reuse items such as face masks. But, on Russian state television, Vladimir Putin’s mission to send medical supplies to Italy is given a primetime spot. 

The initiative, named From Russia with Love, has also sent more than a hundred Russian military doctors and infectious disease specialists to help fight the country’s COVID-19 outbreak.

“Our soldiers were greeted there as the closest of friends,” said one newscaster yesterday. “Handshakes are forbidden in Italy, however the Russian delegation was thanked even more warmly: they pressed their hands over their hearts.”

Additional reporting and translation by Katia Patin

Maria Koltsova

Maria Koltsova is a journalist based in Moscow covering human rights issues. Her work has appeared in Deutsche Welle, MBK media and others.

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