Russia's coronavirus count under scrutiny as Putin government denies hiding cases

Skepticism is growing in Russia over the number of coronavirus cases the country is reporting, even as the government pivots to taking more extreme measures.

President tries to assure Russians that coronavirus situation is 'under control'

A man kisses the relics of John the Baptist in Kazan cathedral in central St. Petersburg, Russia, on March 15, 2020. As late as Sunday, Orthodox parishioners were lining up to kiss church icons without wiping them down, but more stringent measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus are coming into place Wednesday, closing the country's borders to foreigners and limiting indoor gatherings to fewer than 50 people. (Anton Vaganov/Reuters)

As country after country in Europe reported dramatic growth in COVID-19 cases and moved to systematically shut down communities and economies, Russia had been a striking outlier — until now.

As late as Sunday, professional soccer games were still being played in front of thousands of people. Orthodox parishioners were lining up to kiss church icons without wiping them down. And on Russian state television, pundits were full of their usual effusive praise for how the administration of President Vladimir Putin has been handling the outbreak.

"In Russia, things are not like they are in Europe," said Dmitry Kiselyov, whose pro-Kremlin monologues on his show Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week) have landed him on the sanctions list for both Canada and the European Union. 

"Things are going along in their normal way," he said as he pushed the Kremlin narrative that the virus has been inflicted on Russia by foreigners but the country is successfully fighting back.

"It's big, scrupulous work," he said, "but the results are clear."

Dr. Anastasia Vasileyeva, head of a trade union for Russian medical practioners, says no one really knows how many cases of coronavirus there are in the country. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Within 48 hours, however, Russians suddenly seem less confident. 

Effective Wednesday, all of the country's vast borders will be closed to foreigners, bringing the country into line with places such as the European Union. Moscow has banned all outdoor events and limited indoor gatherings to fewer than 50 people and older Russians have been told to remain inside.   

Schools are now shut, attractions such as Lenin's tomb and the Bolshoi Theatre are closed and the government has announced a sizable bailout package for businesses at risk.   

Authorities say even with their early successes at holding off the virus outside Russian territory, cases are rising and more needs to be done. 

Officially, Russia has just 114 confirmed coronavirus cases and no confirmed deaths. 

It's a remarkably small number for a country of 149 million people that shares land borders with 14 other countries, including a 4,200-kilometre boundary with China, where the coronavirus outbreak started. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Kremlin in Moscow on Wednesday. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Reuters)

By comparison, tiny Iceland has twice the official number of cases as Russia.   

Japan, with roughly the same population as Russia, has almost 10 times as many.

Even the president of Belarus, often seen as Russia's closest neighbour, has questioned the low numbers, suggesting that Russia is "ablaze" with coronavirus.

Senior Russian officials, including Putin, the country's prime minister and the mayor of Moscow, all insist the Russian figures are accurate.

The official TASS news agency quoted Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova as suggesting the situation was a result of "restrictive and prohibitive measures" adopted by Russia, including an early closure of the border with China and other restrictions on people entering Russia from Asia.

But several doctors and health-care workers contacted by CBC News believe the real caseload is far higher and that Russia could be hiding hundreds of coronavirus deaths by labelling them as something else. 

An employee wearing a protective mask cleans and disinfects a subway train as part of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Moscow on Monday. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

"I think they don't want to tell the truth," said Dr. Anastasia Vasiliyeva, an ophthalmologist who heads the Doctor's Alliance, a recently formed countrywide union for medical practitioners. 

"I think we have thousands of coronavirus [cases] in Russia but no one really knows how much."

The Russian business publication RBC reported this week that Russia's official statistics agency, Rosstat, confirmed incidents of "community acquired pneumonia" increased by 37 per cent in Russia from January 2019 to January 2020.

That translates into an increase of close to 2,000 cases.   

Some patients who contract coronavirus can develop severe pneumonia and other respiratory problems.

"That's why they call coronavirus, 'pneumonia,' " Vasiliyeva told CBC News. 

One family doctor who's been in practice for more than a decade in Moscow told CBC News their clinic has seen a number of patients recently who likely had coronavirus, but doctors did not report them to federal health authorities because they were concerned about the conditions inside the quarantine sites where they would be sent. 

Major tourist attractions in Moscow, such as Lenin's tomb, are closed. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

"I have dealt with patients with mild symptoms that I am convinced have coronavirus but I have not reported them to the hotline as I refuse to see them be put in isolation in God knows what kind of conditions along with other patients," said the doctor.   

CBC News has agreed not to identify this person as doing so could result in severe recriminations by Russian authorities.

The doctor also said many coronavirus cases go unreported because physicians don't want to see their offices shut down and quarantined by Russian authorities. 

"That would mean no salary and no revenues for them and their families. This is Russia and this is the reality."

Russian health authorities report more than 100,000 people have been tested for the coronavirus, mostly through Russian-developed test kits.

"Its high accuracy was confirmed in China," Kiselyov, the Kremlin TV pundit, said on his talk show of the tests.

No workers at Moscow's coronavirus 'hotline' call centre were wearing masks when CBC News visited and many were sitting within two metres of each other. (Chris Brown/CBC)

But Vasiliyeva, with the medical union, said doctors from across the country are calling her and saying both the testing and the results are unreliable.

"They don't really know if the tests work," she told CBC News, noting that some doctors have told her they have waited days to get test results returned but never received them.

"They send them and they don't get the information back."

Vasiliyeva said until recently the Moscow area had three infectious disease hospitals to treat patients, but at the time of the coronavirus outbreak in January, there was just one in operation.

Health authorities are rushing to build a second facility for infectious diseases in the city's southwest but its opening date is unclear.

Vasileyva said she is not affiliated with any political organization and claims to "like" Putin. However, she rents office space from his nemesis, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, who she acknowledges has been supportive of the doctors union.

While Navalny has not said much about the coronavirus situation in Russia, other prominent Russians have been vocal.

An aerial view Monday shows a construction site where a new hospital is being built for treating patients infected with coronavirus outside Moscow. (Denis Voronin/Agency of city news 'Moskva'/Reuters)

The Moscow Times reports Oleg Deripaska, one of Russia's richest men, suggested that Russians are ignoring prudent public health advice.

In a post on his social media page, he wrote that if Russia doesn't move quickly to prevent the virus's spread, the consequences could be "more serious than the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991."

Other commentators have drawn parallels between the former Soviet Union's initial efforts to downplay and minimize the impact of the 1986 Chornobyl disaster with the Putin administration's handling of coronavirus now.

Putin himself, the central figure in Russian political life for more than two decades, has been absent from much of the discussion around the coronavirus, although on Tuesday he attempted to dispel what he called "dangerous rumours."

"The situation, as a whole, is under control," said Putin.

"We managed to contain the massive — and I want to emphasize the massive — penetration and spread of the disease in Russia."

While Russia has taken decisive steps in the past 48 hours — such as closing its borders to international travellers — restaurants, bars and shopping malls all remain open, though perhaps not for long. The heavily used Moscow Metro transit system, which moves more than 9.4 million passengers a day, continues to function, though it is notably less busy.

And while there has been some public messaging about the need for "social distancing," it has been far less noticeable than in Europe or Canada.

Indeed, CBC News visited Moscow's recently opened coronavirus call centre where several hundred workers sat in close proximity to each other answering phones and talking to supervisors.

One worker said most people calling were not anxious or panicky and instead wanted answers to basic questions such as what are the symptoms of the virus.

But Vasileyva said the call centre is indicative of many of the problems with Russia's response to the crisis, as she believes it's only a matter of time before the coronavirus strikes the centre itself.

"If one person comes in there with the virus, everybody will have the coronavirus."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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