As It Happens

Russian doctor questions Kremlin's ability to control COVID-19 pandemic

Anastasia Vasilieva, head of the Alliance of Doctors, told As It Happens that despite Russian President President Vladimir Putin recently acknowledging the coronavirus crisis, the government continues to fail to give health-care workers appropriate support.

Anastasia Vasilieva was arrested in April while trying to distribute PPE to workers in rural Moscow

A medical specialist transports a man on a stretcher outside a hospital for patients infected with COVID-19 on the outskirts of Moscow. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)


Russia set a dangerous new record over the weekend with its government announcing more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases in just one day, making it one of the globe's new pandemic hotspots.

Anastasia Vasilieva, head of the Alliance of Doctors, said that despite Russian President Vladimir Putin now acknowledging the crisis, the government continues to fail to give health-care workers appropriate support.

Putin's engagement comes nearly two months after Russia reported its first COVID-19 death on March 12. It wasn't until March 30 that the Kremlin began enforcing stricter quarantine measures, such as restricting movement in major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

According to Johns Hopkins University, as of May 4 there were 145,268 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 1,350 deaths related to the virus in Russia. Many doctors and local officials believe the official toll released by the Kremlin doesn't reflect the true extent of the outbreak.

Vasilieva told As It Happens host Carol Off that the situation in Moscow and the surrounding region is "terrible", as all available hospital beds are full and medical workers fall sick from coronavirus.   

Here is part of their conversation. 

Earlier last month, you were arrested outside of Moscow after you went to raise concerns about the lack of PPE. What is the situation now? 

[The areas lacking PPE] are very far from Moscow. Yes, there are some cases [there] but the situation is not so severe as in Moscow, but I think that the disease will [arrive] in maybe a month. 

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We were supplying not only the place where I was arrested, [but also] supplying hospitals in Moscow and the Moscow region, because the problem is very, very bad. [Medical workers] really don't want to work because they now understand the danger.

Since your arrest, Russian President Vladimir Putin has admitted that there is a shortage of this PPE and has insisted that they are going to correct that. He seems to be taking this much more seriously than he did at the beginning, saying that lockdowns are being extended.

Do you think you have accomplished what you set out to do by making the government aware of this shortage?

After we made noise, of course President Putin understood the danger. [But only] in some hospitals they got more PPE, not in all. Even now, they have this problem. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been criticized for inaction on stopping the spread of coronavirus. (Alexey Druzhinin/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images)

We understand that it's not impossible to supply every hospital, because even Putin said that [Russia] can produce about a million respirators a day. But every day [we are] receiving letters from medical workers from all over Russia that they have a lack of PPE. 

Do you think that Putin is now on top of this? That is the restrictions he's put in place are actually going to now get a grip on the spread of this virus in Russia?

It's too late for the president to understand because he was responsible for the lives of medical workers. It is the same today as it was a month or two ago. 

And what about the public itself? 

State television has said "It's OK, we have enough PPE, enough medical staff. It's not a severe infection." And that's why a lot of people don't understand the real danger. 

That's the population [still] going for walks, they go to have fun outside. How can they understand if the government doesn't explain why they should be at home? 

The minister of health and the government don't speak to their people and they don't explain. That's why a lot of people in Russia don't really believe that this infection is real. This infection is real and a danger to their health. 

I know that you have support now from Alexei Navalny, Putin's opposition. You actually treated him as a patient. But you are still a doctor. Are you comfortable with this new political role as head of the Alliance of Doctors? 

It doesn't matter to me. I'm a doctor and that is very important work. If I don't tell the truth or try to help these doctors to be safe and to have the opportunity to survive, who will do it? 

The organizations who are trying to prevent this infection and the chiefs of these organizations are politicians. They are not doctors. They don't understand the real situation. That's why maybe their measures are not enough.

It's my responsibility, it's my destiny to help. I understand the danger.

Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A is edited for length and clarity.

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