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Free food provided by the restaurant "Tanuki" for medical personnel working at Moscow’s Sergey Yudin City Clinical Hospital, where suspected coronavirus cases are being treated. April 2020

‘All of Moscow is rushing in to feed its doctors’ How Russian restaurateurs and volunteers are supporting health workers in the fight against coronavirus

Source: Meduza
Free food provided by the restaurant "Tanuki" for medical personnel working at Moscow’s Sergey Yudin City Clinical Hospital, where suspected coronavirus cases are being treated. April 2020
Free food provided by the restaurant "Tanuki" for medical personnel working at Moscow’s Sergey Yudin City Clinical Hospital, where suspected coronavirus cases are being treated. April 2020
Alexander Avilov / “Moskva” News Agency

Thousands of doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel now find themselves on the frontlines of Moscow's battle against the coronavirus. As hospitals are inundated with patients, doctors are forced to work longer and longer shifts, needing meals without ever leaving their workspace. With hungry hospital staff in a city that can no longer eat out, some restaurant owners have decided to remain open to help feed Moscow's medical workers. To find out more about the initiative, Meduza spoke with several restaurateurs now preparing food and delivering meals to hospitals, free of charge.

When it comes to food arrangements for staff at Russia's hospitals, nothing much has changed since the coronavirus outbreak. The government hasn't instituted any policy to cover the cost of delivered meals, so doctors in clinics and hospitals brown bag it and other medical staff typically (and secretly) eat at cafeterias (where the food is so delicious that it often goes to waste after patients refuse to consume it).

It's true that many Moscow hospitals, in the past 20 years, have opened dining halls for doctors and installed vending machines that sell sandwiches and coffee.

“But in this current situation where doctors are on the frontlines practically without a break for 12 hours at a time — not just eight — it’s not possible for them to pop down to the cafeteria or even to the vending machine,” says a doctor from City Hospital Number 52, where Moscow treats many of its confirmed coronavirus patients. “Doing that would mean taking off all our medical gear, leaving the COVID ward, and going to another floor, or maybe even to a different building.”  

Irina Ilyenko, a cardiologist at Moscow City Hospital Number 15, spoke with the publication Pravmir about his job's new demands: “We were advised that we are allowed only one break [in a 12-hour shift] to have a drink, grab a bite, go to the washroom — taking three or five breaks is out of the question. The reason is simply that it would take up too much time and require us to throw out more protective gear. They've asked for our understanding on this. Whenever you leave the red zone, you have to go through the department doors, take off your protective suit, and then put it on again [once you've returned] — it takes up a lot of time (a half an hour at the very least). When you factor in the time it takes to eat, it’s even longer, leaving the ward understaffed for anywhere between 40 minutes and an hour. And what if an ambulance shows up at just that moment, or someone is dying and each second is a matter of life or death? You won’t have time to throw down your fork and make it back in time for the patient. That’s why you have to negotiate any ‘I’m popping out for a break’ with the other people on your ward.”

Doctors treating coronavirus patients in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Ryazan, Krasnodar, and other cities across Russia are now struggling to find time to eat. In circumstances when one person is already doing the work normally handled by two, stepping away (and discarding increasingly scare protective gear, moreover) only exacerbates acute staff shortages. To avoid the potentially dire consequences here, many doctors are simply going long hours without food.

But there are efforts underway to address this problem.

In early March, several Moscow restaurant owners and food manufacturers began supplying doctors with meals at no cost. The initiative made waves on social media, and restaurants are now providing food to roughly a dozen clinics in Moscow and more than five in St. Petersburg, as well as a handful of hospitals in Yekaterinburg and other cities. Doctors are receiving coffee, pasta, pizza, burgers, shish kabobs, soups, desserts, and yogurt. Several major restaurant chains that have closed their doors to visitors during the pandemic (including “Saperavi,” “Tanuki,” and “Novikov Group Holdings”) are participating in the humanitarian campaign.

By all accounts, the food delivery effort has developed haphazardly, but working groups have already sprung up to help prioritize needs and decide who will “take charge” of which hospital. There has even been fighting over individual facilities and allegations that the food drive is a publicity stunt designed to cash in on others' suffering. Despite these issues, more and more free meals are reaching hospital workers in major cities across Russia. In Moscow alone, more than 2,000 doctors and nurses now get free food from local restaurants every day. The meals are packaged conveniently and delivered as close as possible to the wards where staff are working, all in order to minimize the time needed to eat.

Meduza asked several people involved in this process to explain the project and how they got involved.

Anastasia Engelhardt

founder of the “Dostup” [“Access”] Foundation, which coordinates volunteers delivering food to doctors

It all started when the head doctor of one of Moscow’s hospitals contacted me personally — he called and said that his medical staff wouldn’t say no to a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. Doctors are on their feet 24 hours a day now, but the government isn’t providing meals for them. On March 19, I posted about our project, Access, on Instagram, and I wrote that it’s very important to support doctors and show gratitude to them. Immediately, people took it upon themselves to bring in coffee, and it snowballed from there. Now, over 40 companies have joined us, and they supply food to the hospitals we have arrangements with. There are 10 in Moscow, but it’s not just that: there are also six in St Petersburg and a few more in Ryazan and Yekaterinburg, and Krasnodar is just about to come on board, too.

Here’s how it works: we receive official requests from hospitals for support. We contact hospital administrators to collect info about staff numbers, how many people are working each shift, and so on. Then, we tell our suppliers how many meal kits we need, and they either send them to us, or we get our volunteers who are already out on deliveries to go to them. We get photos of the results from the hospitals on a regular basis, and the doctors write thank-you notes and send personal messages. It feels great, and it seems to me like an important service.

I think I’d be right in saying that, on a daily basis, we send around 2,000 meal kits to Moscow hospitals alone. It’s a colossal amount. The number of hospitals taking in coronavirus patients is growing every day in the regions as well, so we really need both partners and volunteers in those areas, too.

Maxim Dorofeyev

owner, Zames restaurant

We were among the first to start cooking food for doctors. We started at the beginning of March or the tail end of February. As far as I know, my friend Badma Bashankayev, the famous surgeon, spearheaded this movement. He’s also friends with Denis Protsenko, the head doctor at [the Kommunarka hospital, the main facility in Moscow designated for COVID-19 care]. At the beginning of March, Dr. Bashankayev called me and said the doctors could use some help — they were working in hazmat suits and doing a very tough job. So as a goodwill gesture, we started preparing and delivering about 30 meals a day to Kommunarka. We figured out approximately how many meals were needed and sent them through a courier. Salads, soups, entrées, some sweets, beverages… Everything was packed separately and sent with napkins and disposable silverware. Now, we’re cooking somewhere around 100 meals per day and send them to Kommunarka and to City Hospital No. 52. If it turns out that more meals are needed, of course, we’ll make more. But to be honest, I get the feeling that all of Moscow is rushing to feed its doctors. I’m in a group chat for City Hospital No. 40 (Kommunarka), and you can see there that the list of people feeding the staff is packed all the way out to June.

Daria Sonkina

founder of Dasha’s Pirozhki

It all started when one of my relatives sent us 5,000 rubles [now $67.95] and said, “Make something to eat and take it to the doctors in Kommunarka.” We whipped up some food and found a volunteer coordinator to deliver it to the doctors. I wrote a post about it afterwards, and I was clear on the fact that this wasn’t charity, that my relative had paid for it. I immediately started getting messages from other people who wrote, “I also want to help.” Suddenly, a whole movement took off: people send us money through an app, and in the comments, they say it’s “for the doctors.” As of April 6, 150 people had sent us money — 280,000 rubles ($3,804) total. I post the updated numbers every three days on Facebook.

In a 10-day period, we delivered over 1,300 packages of food to City Hospital No. 52 in Kommunarka. We just recently arranged to start delivering food to Veterans’ Hospital No. 3 as well, because people are still sending us money and want to support the doctors who are on their feet for 12 hours a day. We decide on the meals ourselves, but it’s obvious that what’s needed is healthy, balanced meals: salads, cheese, granola, yogurt…

The way I see it, this situation only has upsides. People get the chance to feel useful, we get some work, and the doctors get food. Besides, this initiative might force both the federal Health Ministry and the municipal Health Department to bust a move and take some action.

Nelly Konstantinova 

PR director, Novikov Group

Around March 20 or so, we were given contacts for the chief doctors of three Moscow clinics to choose from. We initially set up a deal with City Hospital No. 52, and Krispy Kreme, which is one of our companies, delivered 700 doughnuts there. There were 300 people working in the COVID section, and the doughnuts fit the bill. We figure that food for doctors has to be easy to pick up and to eat on the go, walking or running. These people are in a high-pressure gig, and they don’t even have a chance to run out to the cafeteria. Why doughnuts? Some people believe that during a pandemic, it’s good to eat food that has a lot of glucose.

After the doughnuts, our restaurant Luce cooked up 100 portions of stir-fried beef noodles and delivered them to the surgeons at the Center for Maxillofacial Surgery – there are also doctors working on COVID there, and they were very touched. After that, we sent 100 kilos of cucumbers, 100 kilos of tomatoes, and 15 kilos of fresh strawberries from our greenhouses. Our network #Farsch cooked 150 burgers for City Hospital No. 67. Our café Bro&N delivered 50 pizzas to Kommunarka, and our café Magadan made fish cakes for the doctors at City Hospital No. 15. […] Even though we don’t provide meals on a regular basis at this point, many of our restaurants are in close contact with certain clinics and are continuing to make and deliver food to them. This isn’t hype, and it’s not an attempt to profit from illness – in this current climate, it truly is a very important and useful thing to do.

Vadim Melkumov

owner, La Corte di Milano restaurant

We’ve been making food for the Kommunarka doctors for about two weeks already. One of the doctors there is a good friend of ours, and he called to ask if we could lend a hand by giving them some food. Of course, we agreed. Now we’re preparing up to 50 meals a day: ravioli, pasta, pizza, and we’ve even started making desserts since doctors work virtually around the clock. We send the food either through Yandex.Taxi or through Gett-taxi, and a volunteer in Kommunarka picks it up. Everyone is happy with how it’s been working.

Hatuna Kolbaya

owner of the chain stores "Saperavi," "Vai Me," and others

My husband and I and one of our friends decided to help the doctors – it was obvious that their workload would grow exponentially, and that no one was prepared for that influx. They’re on their feet for 12 hours a day, with no chance to grab a bite, go to the bathroom, or change their clothes… For me, this wasn’t just a moral decision. I understand that our economy and our businesses are on a downward spiral, no two ways about it. It’ll take more than a year for us to get back on our feet. But at the same time, we see doctors trying to save our future, and that really moves me.

We started out by sending volunteers to deliver 40 meals to Kommunarka. The next day we increased that to food for 50 people. Little by little, our suppliers started chipping in, sending us cheese, vegetables, meat, grains, marmalade… After that, we started delivering to City Hospital No. 52 as well. We made shish kebabs [and Georgian dishes like] ajapsandali, chakhokhbili, kharcho, and lulya for the doctors. We sent slices of cheesecake, and we even started to experiment and send over ice cream from “Gelato” to City Hospital No. 52. I was half-convinced they wouldn’t want it, but the doctors were thrilled — salted caramel was a hit!

Now, we have 17 delivery partners who send our meals to the doctors at no cost. A lot of people have offered to send us money, but in these circumstances, I don’t want to take money. It’s better for them to send the food we need to make meals, and then we distribute, cook, and deliver it. We’ve got staff members involved in this: our cook, our director, and our operations managers. Everything has to be cooked well, and more importantly, packed well. There’s a photo going around on WhatsApp of food that was sent to doctors just wrapped in tinfoil, with no expiration date and no label. Well, what if the doctors don’t have a table or chair to sit at? Maybe they have to eat standing up. That means you’ve got to send things like cutlery and wet wipes along with the meals. They’re people! They’re tired! Damn it, what were you thinking, sending food in tinfoil?

What health officials say

The Health Ministry, the Moscow Municipal Health Department, and various other departments have not yet announced their plans for supporting Russian doctors, including the issue of supplying enough food for hospital staff. Meduza’s phone call to the Health Ministry went unanswered. A representative for the city Health Department said he had “forwarded a request,” but we did not receive a response from the agency by publication time.

Story by Alexey Yablokov

Translation by Tracey Orr