This Week’s Highlights
Moscow deploys more digital tools to discourage folks from breaking mass at home self-isolation, while Putin rolls out lackluster benefits for the country’s rising number of unemployed; Russia’s most repressive region strengths its COVID-19 crackdown, leaving intimidated people to die at home; and the government isolates a massive provincial hospital dealing with its own outbreak of the novel coronavirus — without warning the staff or patients.
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Russia’s Worsening Outbreak, Explained
Russia’s official coronavirus count has surpassed 21,000 patients. Thousands of new cases are being diagnosed each day and at least 170 people have died of the disease. However, official data is still being questioned as many believe the actual scale of the outbreak is much larger. Most of the cases are concentrated in the capital and the Moscow Mayor’s Office says that metropolitan hospitals are working at capacity. Soon, they may not be able to cope. However, experts are warning that Russia has yet to reach the peak of its coronavirus epidemic, meaning the worst is yet to come.
QR Quarantine. For residents of Moscow, leaving the house is more complicated than ever. Beginning on April 13, the authorities introduced a system of digital passes, which requires Muscovites to send an online request for a QR code in order to go to work or run errands. The police can ask you to present your digital code at any time and a seperate app has been launched to control the movement of COVID-19 patients. Given the onset of warmer spring weather and the approach of the Orthodox Easter holiday, these measures are clearly designed to discourage people from going outside.
Third time's a charm. On April 2 , President Vladimir Putin made his third address to the nation in recent weeks and announced that the nationwide “week off”would be extended until the end of the month. Once again, Putin did not introduce a state of emergency but rather listed the government’s latest measures to support individuals and businesses.
Close, but no cigar. “The government has finally recognized that under the current conditions it has extraordinary obligations that need to be fulfilled,” says our politics editor, Kirill Martynov. “On the other hand, [these measures] are still insufficient in comparison with Europe or America’s large-scale plans to save national economies.”
A real risk of mass unemployment. Martynov is not alone in thinking this: economists estimate that millions of people in Russia could lose their jobs, which will only exacerbate the economic difficulties brought on by the instability of the rouble and falling global oil prices. And that’s even if demand for Russian raw materials were to recover.
“Will the government, given the present capacity of the state apparatus, be able to launch an effective system for supporting its citizens and not just its own trustees and state companies?
Unfortunately, we will soon be testing this question the hard way,” Martynov concludes.
Read Kirill Martynov’s full take on the government’s latest economic measures here.
Putin’s Unemployment Plan, Explained
For the time being, Putin is offering anyone who has been unemployed since March 1 the maximum unemployment benefit for up to three months. However, this “maximum” is in line with minimum wage, which is currently equivalent to about $165 per month. Unemployed Muscovites are only slightly better off, with Mayor Sergey Sobyanin offering them around $265 per month in compensation. That said, many Russians will not qualify for these unemployment benefits. And so for them the economic fallout from the pandemic is often scarier than the coronavirus itself.
“I want to go work at Kommunarka!” says Anastasiya Kozitsyna, a former lawyer and Moscow resident, whose business recently went bankrupt. She doesn’t believe in the coronavirus and therefore claims to have no reservations about going to work at Moscow’s main coronavirus hospital, known as Kommunarka.
“I don’t have a medical education, but I don’t care, I’ll go to the hospital. We need money! We have nothing to eat,” she says.
Experts weigh in. If self-isolation lasts for a year, over 15 million people in Russia could lose their jobs, warn experts from the Moscow-based Center for Macroeconomic Analysis and Short-term Forecasting (CMASF). According to our own research, there’s already been an uptick in Russians looking for work via online job sites. And the president of the online portal SuperJob, Alexei Zakharov, says that the unemployment situation could be even worse.
“If this horror lasts another month we will have a minimum of 20 to 25 million unemployed people,” Zakharov warns. According to the Federal State Statistic Service, Rosstat, an estimated 74.5 million Russians were employed in February, that’s more than half the population. But Superjob’s forecasts predict that 33% of employed Russians will lose their jobs by the end of April. And that’s not to mention the vast number of workers who aren’t citizens.
“We are stopping construction, [a sector] in which millions of migrant workers were employed. They have no safety cushions and they can’t go back to their homelands. We already have a huge number of additional deaths from heart attacks because people are losing their jobs, they’re losing money, they already have nothing to eat,” Zakharov says.
Read more about Russia’s lackluster unemployment benefits here and read our research on the potential unemployment scenario here.
Chechnya’s Inhumane COVID-19 Crackdown, Explained
During a video address on April 13, the head of Russia’s most repressive region of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, made a direct threat to our journalist Elena Milashina. She was attacked in the region back in February. The threat came in response to her reporting on the severe lockdown measures in Chechnya, which are forcing local residents to hide their illnesses for fear of retribution. As a result, they are dying in their own homes.
A direct threat. Kadyrov called on Gazprom, the security services and Putin to stop Novaya Gazeta’s alleged “anti-Chechen harassment.” He then appealed to them “keep Chechens from turning into killers”; asking them not to force him to “take a sin upon his soul” for “stopping the work of Novaya Gazeta.” Kadyrov also refers to the February attack on Milashina specifically and describes her saying “the woman, if she can be called a woman.”
We consider these statements a direct threat.
The “Chinese Model.” In an alleged attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, Kadyrov has introduced harsh measures, which he refers to as the “Chinese model.” He even told residents of the region to “imagine that you are in prison, but with comfortable conditions.” Kadyrov has also compared coronavirus patients to terrorists, and threatened them with beatings, imprisonment or even death for falling ill.
High-profile deaths. On April 7, Ahmad Garayev passed away in the village of Novye Atagi in Chechnya. He was over 80 years old and a high-profile figure; he knew Ramzan Kadyrov’s father, his predecessor, Akhmad Kadryov, well. His funeral was held the next day and a huge number of people attended. Later that evening, nine of his relatives were diagnosed with COVID-19.
Rumors abound, but no testing. Chechnya’s parliamentary chairman Magomed Daudov later came out and claimed that Garayev had “died in the hospital of natural causes.” However, his relatives maintain that he fell ill after coming in contact with pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia and died at home without ever visiting a hospital. This spurred rumours that Garayev died of COVID-19. We reached out to a number of other people who attended the funeral, who claimed that no one came to test them for the coronavirus, despite the fact that they had reported their situation to the authorities.
Few tests in the regions. Instead, these people were ordered to stay at home and the authorities have deployed around 2,000 police officers to monitor “self-isolated” citizens. Chechnya has allegedly tested around 3,000 people so far, which is less than 1% of the region’s population (estimated at 1.45 million people as of January 2020). In this sense, however, Chechnya is not so different from the rest of Russia’s regions, where testing remains limited.
Read more about Chechnya’s harsh response to the pandemic here.
Ufa’s Quarantined Hospital, Explained
Since April 6, the Republican Clinical Hospital in Ufa (the capital of Russia’s Republic of Bashkortostan), has been under emergency quarantine due to an alarming outbreak of the coronavirus. According to unofficial reports, 600 patients and 400 doctors are on lockdown inside the building, and there are at least 170 people among them with symptoms of COVID-19. During a briefing on April 10, however, the Minister of Health claimed that there were only 40 confirmed coronavirus cases in the republic.
Surprise lockdown. Doctors at the Republican Clinical Hospital came to work as per usual on the morning of April 6, but near the end of the day shift, around 4 p.m., they discovered that the doors had been locked. All medical staff and patients inside the building were forced to stay there without any of their things since no one had warned them about the emergency quarantine.
Cut off from the outside world. News about the lockdown got out through a lawyer by the name of Timur Urazmetov, whose mother runs the hospital’s rheumatology department. “The doctors are all afraid, they are scared. Every one of them is being pressured and they are not allowed to communicate with me,” Urazmetov says. “At first they called me themselves, asking for legal help.
The next day I couldn’t reach them because they had been intimidated.”
Trapped in life-endangering conditions. Now, the hospital’s medical staff are essentially trapped inside and working constantly. What’s more, many of them have complained that they are lacking proper personal protective equipment and are being forced to wear the same disposable plastic suits for several days without changing.
The price of incompetence. According to the medical staff, the situation could have been avoided entirely if the hospital’s management didn’t ban coronavirus testing back in March. As a result, many patients were misdiagnosed with “community-acquired pneumonia” and were subsequently discharged.
Read our exclusive report from Republican Clinical Hospital in Ufa here.
Other Top-Stories Russia Has Been Reading
- Prison riots in Irkutsk. Our most-read story this week was about a prison riot that broke out at a penitentiary in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. According to official reports, inmates attacked a staff member, who was later hospitalized for his injuries. Based on our sources, however, the incident was far more complicated. Prison guards reportedly beat a notorious authority figure from the criminal underworld, to which 17 inmates responded by slashing their wrists. This allegedly escalated into a full-blown riot when guards responded with force– the inmates even set fire to the prison’s woodshop.
- Crawling back to OPEC. Our other non-coronavirus top story was about Russia mending fences with OPEC and reaching an agreement on reducing oil production. The Kremlin was caught off guard by Saudi Arabia’s reaction to its decision to pull out of OPEC+ in March and was unprepared for the dramatic collapse of global oil prices, economist Maxim Averbukh explains. Now, Russia has agreed to cut back oil production by about 20% in the first stage, which adds up to over 2 million barrels per day.
“For Russia, such a big reduction is fraught – unless of course, we withstand it,” Averbukh warns. “We simply won’t be able to restart a significant number of the sealed oil wells, when such an opportunity arises.”
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— The Novaya Gazeta Team