Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod region is among those hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Regional officials are lifting lockdown restrictions regardless.
The Nizhny Novgorod region has taken fourth place in Russia for having the most coronavirus infections. As of May 25, more than 8,000 people in the region have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 65 people have died. The growth of new cases has stabilized, but it’s still more than 200 per day. Local officials attribute these numbers to the region’s proximity to Moscow. Despite these alarming statistics, the regional capital of Nizhny Novgorod has moved towards the first stage of lifting quarantine restrictions. Technically speaking, the city has met the federal public health authority’s requirements for beginning the exit from lockdown.
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“We are located near Moscow, we have a direct connection, so we have the same epidemiological wave [as in the capital],” the Nizhny Novgorod region’s Deputy Governor, David Melik-Guseynov, told Meduza in April.
Until the end of March, the “Lastochka” high-speed train travelled from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod several times a day (now it’s down to one trip). In mid-April, the region’s Governor, Gleb Nikitin, ordered all visitors to undergo a two-week quarantine. And as of April 26 the region was closed for entry: only registered residents and those with special permits could get in.
Nikitin said that the new restrictions are due to the fact that the region's residents generally respect self-isolation requirements, but there are those “who do not care at all.” At the beginning of May, the governor closed several villages and cities within the region for quarantine, including the industrial towns of Vyksa and Pavlovo. Meanwhile, the rural town of Diveyevo has been closed since the end of April: quarantine was introduced after several nuns at the Saint Seraphim-Diveyevo Monastery — one of the largest and most frequently visited convents in Russia — were diagnosed with COVID-19.
Nevertheless, on May 19, the region began the first stage of lifting lockdown restrictions, with the exception of those areas that had been specifically placed under quarantine. Small stores with separate entrances were able to open — shoppers can now buy clothes and shoes (without trying them on), so long as they comply with social distancing norms of four square meters per customer. Residents of Nizhny Novgorod are now allowed to go for two-hour walks within one kilometer of their homes, and play sports outdoors in groups of two. The regional administration has also allowed kindergartens to reopen. Beauty salons can resume work, too, so long as they install video cameras that will allow the authorities to monitor clients and compliance with procedure (local businesses are critical of this particular measure).
Family hot spots
In mid-May, Deputy Governor David Melik-Guseynov said that the majority of coronavirus patients in the Nizhny Novgorod region were infected by family members. According to his data, by May 13 only 2.5 percent of cases were “imported”; 3 percent of patients were infected at medical institutions; and the source of the infection could not be established in 35 percent of cases, meaning that those people could have been infected anywhere. The deputy governor claimed that a joint investigation into these cases is being carried out, in cooperation with Russia’s public health authority, Rospotrebnadzor. However, he did not explain how exactly the investigation is being conducted.
Since May 17, the majority of the infections in Nizhny Novgorod itself have been found in the densely populated Avtozavodsky District. As of May 24, this area had 754 of the region’s 8,276 confirmed cases. On social media, locals have suggested that the infection can be traced back to the Gorkovsky Automotive Manufacturer (GAZ), which was previously shut down for two weeks, but resumed work on April 13.
In response to Meduza’s questions, the automotive manufacturer’s press service did not confirm the number of cases among people at the factory, but maintained that cases among employees are “isolated,” claiming that the infections were due to contact that took place outside of the factory, and that all exposed employees have been quarantined. The GAZ press services added that the company has spent more than a billion rubles (approximately $14 million) on coronavirus prevention, including disinfecting the premises, conducting temperature checks among employees, and introducing social distancing and protective barriers on the factory floor.
The GAZ Group’s headquarters in Nizhny Novgorod told Meduza that the company has not had any COVID-19 outbreaks at its enterprises, and that it has transitioned to a four-day work week from May 15 until the end of 2020.
The region has conducted over 200,000 coronavirus tests since the beginning of the pandemic, and according to its operational headquarters, 170,000 people have been tested in total. As such, test coverage in Nizhny Novgorod has now reached 140 tests per 100,000 residents — meaning that it has surpassed Rospotrebnadzor’s recommendations (released on May 8), which require at least 70 tests per 100,000 people for a region to begin the first stage of ending quarantine.
“They gave you money, you work for it”
Beginning on May 16, Nizhny Novgorod’s operational headquarters reported a decrease in the region’s coronavirus distribution coefficient, which had fallen below one. According to Rospotrebnadzor’s recommendations, this is a requirement for proceeding with the first stage of lifting lockdown restrictions. That said, the region was still seeing approximately 200 new cases per day: on May 25, it recorded another 229 infections.
“They say the number of cases is decreasing, but we aren’t feeling it yet,” a nurse from one of Nizhny Novgorod’s reprofiled coronavirus hospitals tells Meduza, on condition of anonymity. Moreover, the regional health ministry reported on May 24 that in hospitals reprofiled to treat COVID-19 patients, 50 percent of beds were full — the highest number since the ministry began publishing these figures on May 13. According to data from the city’s online portal, Open Nizhny, 5,000 hospital beds have been “deployed” in the region, and 33 medical facilities are taking patients. Rospotrebnadzor’s recommendations say that in order to initiate the first stage of lifting lockdown, the number of free hospital beds should be no less than 50 percent of regulatory needs.
A doctor from another reprofiled hospital (who also asked to remain anonymous) told Meduza that the region is fulfilling its obligations to test doctors: medical personnel are checked once per week and receive their results within a day or two. “Only the patients have begun to be more aggressive towards us,” the doctor complains. “Many think we are not treating them. Someone screams in your [face]: they gave you money, you work for it. There is a feeling that people are embittered because doctors are being paid money.” On May 13, reports emerged that 174 medical workers in the region had contracted COVID-19.
Nizhny Novgorod is also home to the first hospital in Russia where the administration has been suspected of falsifying statistics on the number of coronavirus infections. According to Kommersant, the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) department in the Nizhny Novgorod region launched a criminal case for abuse of office against workers from the Sergachsky District’s central hospital on May 22. The hospital administration allegedly ordered medical workers to collect samples of biomaterials from suspected coronavirus patients “with irregularities.” The case has since been transferred to the Investigative Committee; the hospital’s head doctor, Tatyana Kulueva, is considered a witness. The regional health ministry has promised to carry out an inspection of other hospitals, if the falsification of statistics is confirmed.
Life under quarantine
Beginning on April 2, Nizhny Novgorod introduced a permit system based on QR codes: residents wanting to leave their homes can apply for a pass through the government portal “Nizhny Novgorod region residents’ card.” Until May 19, residents were limited to three hours for trips to the doctor, pharmacy, or store, one hour for walking their pets, and 30 minutes for taking out the trash. On May 15, the regional government announced that nearly 9,000 protocols and 80,000 warnings had been issued for violations of the lockdown regime.
Since the easing of lockdown restrictions began on May 19, government employees have started carrying out street patrols “on a voluntary basis, at no extra cost,” from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. They are meant to be having conversations with residents “about the necessity of wearing masks and gloves, and maintaining [social] distance.” One local resident told Meduza that elementary school teachers were being “forcibly volunteered” to carry out these patrols. The region’s operational headquarters did not comment on these claims.
In cities that are closed for quarantine, however, it’s an entirely different situation. On May 2, Governor Gleb Nikitin quarantined the village of Pochinki, the workers’ settlements of Tumbotino, Gremyachevo, and Mukhtolovo, as well as the cities of Vyksa and Pavlovo. Entering and exiting these areas is now banned unless you are a registered resident, or emergency personnel. As of May 21, these areas had the leading number of coronavirus infections in the Nizhny Novgorod region. Nikitin attributed this to the fact that these areas see high levels of migration, and are home to important industrial enterprises for the region, such as the Vyksa Steel Works.
Now, the lockdown has created problems for workers who commute to work in Vyksa from surrounding towns, such as Navashino, Kulebaki, and Murom. “These people were left to sit at home with two-thirds salary, even those with personal means of transportation,” explains Vyksa RF journalist Viktoria Kravets. Governor Nikitin’s social media accounts are receiving numerous complaints from rural residents in the area — many of their villages have very few stores and they are now banned from entering nearby cities like Vyksa and Pavlovo. To get to Vyksa (where there is only one road leading to the city), “many residents went through the forest, but they set up game cameras,” Kravets says.
In general, however, Vyksa residents feel positive about the quarantine, Kravets explains. “There are a lot of vacation spots in the city, many Muscovites go there to relax, [now] they are not allowed to come. So the Vyksa residents are glad that the [city] closed before the May holidays.” According to Kravets, Vyksa’s residents are trying to alleviate the lockdown boredom through workout flashmobs on Instagram.
According to Nikitin, the coronavirus outbreak in Diveyevo was caused by pilgrims who came from different regions to visit the famous Saint Seraphim-Diveyevo Monastery. The village now has more than 400 cases. Deputy Governor David Melik-Guseynov had to take to Instagram to dispel rumors that the nuns were being “treated by force.” “In particular, rumors are going around that the nuns from Diveyevo are practically being kept imprisoned in regional hospitals. [That] tests are being forcibly taken. This is a heinous lie. Nobody is forcibly testing anyone,” he wrote.
“The nuns are mostly elderly grandmothers with a large number of underlying illnesses. [They] have not left the monastery walls for decades, for them, going out into the world is stressful. But going out into a world, where there turns out to be some kind of covid pandemic [...] and the doctors in the hospitals look like cosmonauts, I think for them this is simply the end of the world,” wrote Nyuta Federmesser, an advisor to the regional governor, and the founder of the hospice assistance fund “Vera.”
The lockdown in Diveyevo has not been lifted yet. The village of Gremyachevo was actually the first settlement in the Nizhny Novgorod region to ease restrictions. Its lockdown lasted just 19 days, from May 2nd to May 21st — and according to Governor Nikitin, this allowed them to stop the outbreak.
Translation by Eilish Hart