Skip to main content
  • Share to or
Officials undergo training exercises to evacuate plane passengers displaying symptoms of the coronavirus 2019-nCoV. Chelyabinsk, February 5, 2020

‘We decided to defend our home’ Russian villagers stopped two different coronavirus quarantine centers from opening by blocking roads and turning away a vehicle carrying Chinese citizens

Source: Meduza
Officials undergo training exercises to evacuate plane passengers displaying symptoms of the coronavirus 2019-nCoV. Chelyabinsk, February 5, 2020
Officials undergo training exercises to evacuate plane passengers displaying symptoms of the coronavirus 2019-nCoV. Chelyabinsk, February 5, 2020
Nail Fattakhov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Three times in three days, government officials in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region had to choose a new location for their local coronavirus quarantine center. Initial attempts to house the new facility in a sanitorium for the elderly sparked anger among local residents, who blocked a road and refused to move until the six healthy Chinese citizens inside the sanitorium were removed. Ultimately, a tuberculosis hospital was repurposed for the quarantine, and Chelyabinsk’s regional governor openly acknowledged that officials had poorly informed their constituents about their plans to combat the virus.

Officials didn’t tell villagers they were building a new quarantine center, triggering street protests

On February 7, the residents of the village of Varna learned that the local Topolyok Sanitorium would soon be used as a quarantine center for Chinese citizens arriving in the Chelyabinsk region. That day, photographs began cropping up in the village’s social media groups showing a letter to the sanitorium’s director signed by regional Social Relations Minister Irina Butorina. The letter said transport would have to be arranged to and from the facility along with housing, constant medical attention, and three means a day for the sanitorium’s new residents.

Topolyok is a sanitorium for the elderly located about three kilometers (1.86 miles) from Varna. As a local resident named Olga whose home is on Topolyok’s land told the news outlet 74.RU, those living near the facility managed to reach Butorina’s ministry by phone. Regional officials confirmed that the letter making the rounds online was real, but they added that Topolyok had not been definitively confirmed as the final location for the local quarantine center.

At the same time, the villagers learned that sanatorium officials were actively preparing to receive a group of non-Russian citizens. During the evening on February 7, the regional Social Relations Ministry released a statement saying the quarantine point at Topolyok had already been established and that two Chinese citizens showing no unusual symptoms were housed there.

“The most offensive thing was that nobody told us how to behave, how to deal with our children. They didn’t explain anything to us. Naturally, we decided to defend our home, and by evening, people started driving over to Topolyok. We were prepared to block the road. By 9:00 PM, about 50 or 60 people had gotten together, Olga told 74.RU.

Traffic police prevented the crowd from blocking the road, but regional Vice Governor Anatoly Vekshin arrived at the site of the impromptu protest to speak with demonstrators. Vekshin announced that the quarantine center had been created in alignment with a federal order but that nobody would be housed there — neither healthy Chinese citizens nor those who had encountered the virus.

Officials spent all of Saturday trying to persuade Varna’s residents that the quarantine center wasn’t dangerous to no avail

The morning of Saturday, February 8, began with regional officials scrambling to explain to Varna residents that only patients who were not showing any symptoms would be housed in the quarantine center — it would only be intended for those just arrived from China who were required to undergo 14 days in isolation. If any of the center’s residents would begin to show symptoms, officials said, they would be transported to a hospital for infectious diseases.

Meanwhile, the press service for the regional executive branch repeated the vice governor’s insistence that nobody would yet be housed in Topolyok, adding that there weren’t even any travelers in the Chelyabinsk region who would require a two-week quarantine. The two Chinese citizens who had supposedly moved into the sanitorium the day before went unmentioned on Saturday.

On February 8, another vice governor, Irina Gekht, wrote on Facebook to reaffirm the government’s central theses on the quarantine center. “Temporary housing points for Chinese citizens have been established in the [Chelyabinsk] region, as they have been all around the country. I am certain that our people will be understanding about the measures being taken without stirring up myths and horror stories around this situation! Take care of yourselves and follow basic preventative measures. I’m sure that everything will end in the next one or two weeks,” Gekht said in her post.

However, announcements alone proved insufficient to quell the protests. Later in the day, Social Relations Minister Irina Butorina announced that there would be no quarantine center in Topolyok. Instead, the sanatorium would continue to operate as usual while a quarantine point would be established in the village of Uzhevka.

Rumor held that there were 27 Chinese citizens being brought to Varna, but the locals and journalists searching for them found no one

From the earliest stages of the impromptu protests in Varna, rumors circulated that a delegation of 27 Chinese citizens was being brought to Topolyok. However, neither local villagers nor journalists ever set eyes on the group: Outside parties were only allowed to enter the sanatorium after the decision to turn it into a quarantine center had been overturned. Government officials denied that any such delegation had been sent to the town.

 On February 8, as it became clear that there would be no quarantine point at Topolyok, reports emerged that 15 people recently returned to Russia from China would be quarantined in the infectious disease wing of the Severny Medical Center in Miass. “It seems like half of the Chinese delegation has been found,” 74.RU wrote in response to the news.

Six people were brought to an Uzhevka sanitorium before protests forced them to leave

Protesters from Uzhevka as well as the neighboring towns of Esaulsky and Roshchino began gathering outside the latter’s City Hall right away on the morning of Sunday, February 9. They were primarily upset by the fact that the fence surrounding the nearby Utes Sanitorium was unreliable, it had no security guards, and less than 1,000 feet of forest separated the sanitorium from the nearest residential buildings. Protesters also complained that many residents of the towns nearest Uzhevka work in the sanitorium as well. Neither the government officials nor the police officers who soon arrived in Roshchino were able to calm the situation.

Meanwhile, an ambulance managed to transport six Chinese citizens to Utes. Protesters soon made their way to the sanitorium as well, blocking one of its entrances. When they remembered that another entrance to the facility was also open, the demonstrators rushed to block that entryway as well. One medical vehicle that was reportedly carrying two Chinese citizens attempted to enter the sanitorium, but the crowds refused to let it through.

Regional Health Minister Yury Semyonov soon addressed the crowd. He attempted to explain that the people being housed in the sanitorium were healthy and then said that two Chinese citizens would be removed from the area. That did not satisfy the demonstrators, who demanded that every Chinese quarantine patient be taken away. Ultimately, the minister announced that the quarantine center would be closed and six people removed from it.

A third vice governor, Stanislav Mosharov, also arrived in Uzhevka and confirmed the minister’s plans. However, even then, the crowd did not disperse. Instead, they waited for an ambulance to leave the sanitorium, counted the number of people in it, and then followed it for a time in their own vehicles to be certain that the individuals under quarantine were not brought back into the Uzhevka area.

The regional government finally settled on a tuberculosis hospital, housing seven quarantine patients there

On February 10, news broke that regional officials had chosen a third location for the new quarantine point: a newly built facility in the region-wide tuberculosis center. Deputy Health Minister Viktoria Sakharova said that seven Chinese citizens had been housed in the building by the time that announcement was made. “The specialized early treatment center will help us provide for complete isolation measures, which is what people are worried about,” she emphasized.

The new building was only completely equipped in early February, and no patients had yet been treated there, meaning that the quarantined Chinese citizens would not be at risk of tuberculosis exposure, said Dr. Anatoly Semyonov, the region’s chief sanitary officer.

“This is a medical institution that has its own courtyard, its own sanitary protection zone, its own ventilation system, and its own waste disposal and food systems. The personnel are all medical; they’re trained individuals. From a medical perspective, the risks are minimal because those being housed in the quarantine center are Chinese citizens who have Russian residency permits. These are not sick people — these are people who traveled to China to celebrate [Chinese] New Year and then came back. These are completely healthy people,” Semyonov stressed.

Alexey Teksler, the governor of the Chelyabinsk region, said the protests had stemmed from the fact that the circumstances of the quarantine were never properly explained to local residents.

“In the absence of information, there was a breakdown in which medics treated the quarantined individuals as healthy while the local population treated them as potentially infected patients. As a result, the medics acted on the assumption that there was no threat to the surrounding population, while the people believed there was a threat,” he explained.

In Teksler’s words, another factor in the unrest was that “the choice of facilities for temporary housing was not clearly advantageous.” In a question-and-answer session on his Instagram page, the governor clarified that the idea of placing quarantines in sanatoriums had a number of flaws. For example, Topolyok only offers communal toilets, which are not suitable for quarantined conditions.

Government officials said that as of Monday morning, there had not been a single confirmed case of the coronavirus infection in the Chelyabinsk region. In the Miass hospital where the region’s second quarantine center is located, none of the 15 people confined have shown symptoms.

The most recent reports available indicate that 30 Chinese citizens with acute respiratory symptoms have been hospitalized in the Chelyabinsk region. Seventeen of them were not diagnosed with any illness at all, and 10 have already been discharged. The remaining 13 are awaiting test results.

Report by Nadezhda Lyapunova

Translation by Hilah Kohen

  • Share to or