'This situation is very scary': Coronavirus is disrupting Vladimir Putin's Russia
Faltering economy and lack of protective gear pose challenges to Kremlin
In Yakutia, in Russia's far northeast — easily one of the most remote resource regions on the planet — isolation appears to be the least of concerns among its more than 10,000 oilfield workers.
"We're infected! Where's the f---ing quarantine? Where are the f---ing masks?" employees shouted in an angry rant aimed at their company and local government posted on a Russian social media site earlier this week.
As many as 10,500 workers at the Chayanda oilfield site have been tested for COVID-19, and though the results haven't been released, the website Meduza quotes the regional governor as saying the number of positive cases is "very significant."
The availability — or rather scarcity — of protective gear at facilities and institutions closer to the country's major population centres appears to be equally problematic.
"Here is the real truth about Reutov hospital [near Moscow] — there is no personal protective equipment in the coronavirus department!" one hospital worker wrote this week on a whistleblower Facebook page set up by frustrated Russian health-care workers.
"Staff wear [their] disposable protective equipment over and over again."
Another video viewed by CBC News showed COVID-19 patients in a hospital in the city of Derbent, Republic of Dagestan, crammed into makeshift bunks in what appears to be storage room, coughing and hacking with IVs in their arms. They were being tended by a nurse who wasn't wearing a mask or any other protective gear.
COVID-19 appeared to come late to Russia, compared with North America and Europe, but now it's striking with a vengeance, the damage compounded by the lack of personal protective equipment for hospital workers.
There are almost daily reports across the vast country — from St. Petersburg to Siberia — of hospitals being quarantined because of coronavirus outbreaks among staff.
On Thursday, the state news agency RIA novesti reported that Prime Minister Mikhail Mishutsin tested positive for the coronavirus and is in self-isolation. He is so far the most senior member of government known to have contracted the virus. President Vladimir Putin has not been seen in public with Mishutsin in weeks, and the prime minister broke the news by video conference.
Among health care workers, the toll has been so high over the past fortnight or so that colleagues have started compiling the names of the dead on an online memorial page — 74 names as of Tuesday night and growing.
Among them was Natalia Lebedeva, who headed up medical services at Russia's cosmonaut training centre outside Moscow. She allegedly died after falling out a window — a fate that has become strikingly common over the years for those who either disapprove of or disappoint Russian authorities.
Independent Russian media reported Lebedeva may have committed suicide after being blamed for letting the coronavirus spread throughout the facility.
Another doctor from Siberia may also have tried to take her life by similarly jumping out of a fifth-storey window at her workplace in Siberia.
As in the cosmonaut hospital case, local media reported that Yelena Nepomnyashchay was blamed by authorities for an outbreak of the virus. She survived but is in critical condition.
For the first time, Putin has acknowledged Russia is having trouble meeting the demands for enough personal protective equipment for its health-care workers.
In an address Tuesday, Putin admitted that "there is still a shortage of some technical items, equipment and disposable materials," despite increasing production of masks 10-fold in April and making more than 100,000 protective suits every day.
"We have concentrated and mobilized all our industrial resources," he said.
Russia is poised to surpass 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country, with approximately 900 reported deaths. Those are extremely low numbers compared with the experience of western Europe, where more than 20,000 people have died in each of the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain.
Many doctors — even those sympathetic to the government — have told CBC News part of the challenge is that Russia's tests return an unusually large number of false negative results.
Other health officials linked to opposition groups believe many deaths are also either deliberately or unintentionally misrepresented.
For example, the Russian business publication RBC quoted Moscow's deputy mayor as saying cases of pneumonia increased more than 70 per cent in the past week, filling up urgent-care beds in the city.
Since many coronavirus patients develop pneumonia, the head of a doctors advocacy group told CBC News in an earlier interview that it's fair to assume most of those patients had COVID-19.
Putin is also facing increasing pressure over the enormous economic cost of the coronavirus lockdown, now into its fifth week in the capital Moscow.
Russia's labour ministry reported Tuesday that unemployment could soon reach six million people.
Many of those out of work would only be eligible to receive a meagre maximum payout of roughly $200 Cdn a month.
Others who are self-employed might not get anything.
"They can't survive in this situation if the lockdown is prolonged," said opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov.
Gudkov is among those calling on the Putin administration to release some of the money in Russia's huge sovereign wealth fund, which holds more than $150 billion US.
When oil revenues were stronger, the money was set aside by the Putin administration to help ease the shock of any future economic sanctions that might be imposed by the West. But Gudkov says the money should be spent now, by making direct payments to people, as has been done in Canada and the United States.
"He doesn't want to spend this reserve fund," Gudkov told CBC News.
"Putin needs the money to maintain the 'Putin forever' model," a reference to the Russian leader's attempts to change the constitution to allow him to serve two more terms as Russia's president.
Gudkov says Putin has a long list of "legacy projects" he wants built, and spending money on direct payments to people will deplete the funds for that.
But frustration is growing, as jobs dry up and the Kremlin offers people little in return, Gudkov says.
"If there is a choice to die from hunger or the virus, it's better to die from the virus."
In his remarks Tuesday, Putin indicated the government is preparing another round of economic assistance for individuals and businesses, but he didn't offer any clues to what it might be.
He also suggested that some parts of Russia might be able to start easing their lockdown and returning to work after a holiday period that ends in mid-May.
'Very scary' for Russian government
In an online discussion hosted by the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, liberal-leaning Russian economist Sergei Guriev, who is based in Paris, suggested COVID-19 represents the most difficult challenge Putin has faced in the 20 years he has sat atop Russia's power structure.
Guriev says street protests against the lockdown may become more frequent, as Russians run out of money and face difficulties feeding their families.
"We are in very uncharted waters," he said. "This situation is very scary for the Russian government."
WATCH | Russians' frustration with the COVID-19 lockdown is growing: