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Managed democracy meets managed epidemiology How Russia rewrote its coronavirus outbreak to clear a path to resetting Putin’s presidential term clock

Source: Meduza
Sergey Bobylov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

More than a month ago, on May 26, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had overcome its first wave of coronavirus infections. That was more than four weeks ahead of the start of nationwide voting on constitutional amendments and the “zeroing out” of the president’s own term clock (potentially allowing him to serve in office until 2036). In the time remaining before the plebiscite, regions across the country reported uniform declines in the number of new COVID-19 cases (or at least stabilized infection rates), while simultaneously lifting containment measures. Despite considerable evidence from overcrowded hospitals, the country seems to have forgotten the pandemic. Meduza special correspondent Liliya Yapparova spoke to doctors, patients, and scholars in Russia’s Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, Sverdlovsk region, and St. Petersburg (which currently lead the nation in new cases) and found out how the disease is still spreading and where it would be the worst, if statistics were reported honestly. 

The Khanty-Mansi AutonHONESTomous Okrug

Surgut, a city of about half a million people, is the center of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug’s growing coronavirus outbreak, with about 50 new officially reported cases every day. Since June 23, the region has registered roughly 300 new infections daily (only the Moscow region has had more).

Meduza spoke to one woman with severe respiratory symptoms likely caused by COVID-19 who says she was refused in-patient care because of overcrowding at her local hospital. The chief infectious diseases specialist at that facility told Meduza that there are still beds available, but doctors are following strict federal guidelines that limit who can be admitted.

Three demographers and data analysts told Meduza that the spike recorded in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug could be occurring elsewhere in Russia, as well, albeit hidden behind tampered numbers. A specialist who works with government data told Meduza that evidence of spikes means the region “is counting honestly, at least.” In other parts of the country, says the source, local officials cover up such statistics and researchers have to rely on anecdotal information shared on social media.

On condition of anonymity, three experts told Meduza that they don’t believe the June data released by Rospotrebnadzor (Russia’s Federal Service for Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare) and warned that the agency’s information appears to be so distorted that regions supposedly now “plateauing” could in fact be the sites of serious new outbreaks. So far, most attention has focused on Moscow, where health officials have in fact limited the spread of the virus, but the epidemic’s containment has struggled outside the capital. 

Zeroing out Russia’s COVID-19 statistics 

Three specialists who have monitored Russia’s coronavirus statistics say the government’s reported numbers started going funny in late May. One demographer who’s tracked Russia’s epidemiological figures since March told Meduza that federal officials “took control” of reporting in most regions across the country in order to “paint a prettier picture” ahead of the constitutional plebiscite.

A source close to the Moscow Mayor’s Office told Meduza that state officials expect a week of nationwide voting to cause new coronavirus infections to spike. The authorities allegedly planned to “smooth over” this outbreak as it unfolded and then backdate the official statistics. 

On May 27, a day after President Putin announced that Russia has reached a turning point in the fight against the coronavirus, the Health Ministry issued new guidelines that allowed health officials to “adjust” reported case numbers, two demographers told Meduza. Specifically, regions were told to stop counting asymptomatic infections.

Alexey Kupriyanov, a sociology lecturer at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says infection rates appeared to slow artificially in several cities ahead of Victory Day parades on June 24. For example, he observed such aberrations in Chelyabinsk, Chita, and Yekaterinburg, beginning roughly four days before the parades.

People in Moscow watch preparations on June 18, 2020 for the city’s rescheduled Victory Day parade
Mikhail Dzhaparidze / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Tatyana Mikhailova, an economist and data analyst, told Meduza that many regions across Russia have reported “strange stability” in their new case counts, indicating, she says, that the numbers are being managed. (Genuine epidemiological figures zig zag when modeled, but Russia’s statistics have recently flattened.)

No tests, no test results

A staff member at a hospital in Yekaterinburg, which is now weathering an especially bad coronavirus outbreak, told Meduza that medical workers ceased all outpatient COVID-19 testing a month ago and also scaled back CT scans. Facilities designated exclusively for coronavirus patients, meanwhile, are overcrowded and as many as 10 patients are dying every day, says Meduza’s source.

Konstantin Shestakov, the Health Department’s spokesman in the Sverdlovsk regional, disputes these claims. He told Meduza that there are plenty of hospital beds and insisted that testing is widely available, albeit at the discretion of physicians. 

Andrey Konoval, the co-chair of an interregional health care workers’ union, says some testing facilities have tacitly instructed staff to corrupt samples collected for coronavirus tests by storing the samples at room temperature, in order to reduce the reliability of results. Konoval says health workers have resorted to other tricks, as well. For example, he says ambulance workers in Chelyabinsk agreed not to collect nasal samples for testing until patients have been experiencing symptoms for at least eight days — deliberately waiting until the virus migrates into the lower respiratory tract and leaves fewer traces in the nasopharynx.

Based on Rospotrebnadzor data modeled by Yandex, Russia has gradually performed fewer and fewer COVID-19 tests since mid-June. The agency did not respond to Meduza’s questions about why the number of tests carried out in Russia is falling. 

The authorities in a handful of regions like Yakutia, Mari El, and Novosibirsk have officially reduced testing for the coronavirus in recent weeks. Meduza’s sources in the Saratov, Kaluga, and Smolensk regions say it’s become impossible at times to get PCR tests for COVID-19. A woman in the town of Yartsevo, for instance, described a nightmarish scene at a local hospital, where tests and CT scans are unavailable and overcrowding has become so bad that patients lie on the floor.

Meanwhile, on June 18, Rospotrebnadzor’s laboratory in Khabarovsk stopped accepting new samples for COVID-19 testing until the end of the month, explaining in a press release that specialists needed to process a backlog. 

Other news outlets like The Insider and Novaya Gazeta have reported similar testing blackouts in places like Novosibirsk, Revda, and other cities. 

“I think there are records sitting on government desks right now that show not the official 9,000 [dead], but something like 25,000 people,” one demographer told Meduza. “The government is getting these figures, but they’re classified for the rest of us, marked ‘for internal use.’”

Story by Liliya Yapparova

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

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