Why doesn’t Vladimir Putin stop sending medical aid abroad and start worrying about his own health workers?
Hardly a week goes by without another Russian dispatch of medical supplies to a country in need.
Serbia is the latest recipient. On Saturday they welcomed eleven military cargo planes loaded with supplies and medical staff.
Last month, it was Italy. China and Iran before that. “From Russia with love” is now the slogan for the Kremlin’s apparent munificence.
Beyond promising Russians a week’s paid leave, and then extending it to the whole of April, Vladimir Putin has shown little sign of rising to the challenge COVID-19 poses his country.
He seems more interested in political point-scoring than he does the public health implications of the virus’s spread through almost every Russian region, with community transmission in half of those.
He has delegated responsibility to regional governors, granting them more autonomy in their decision-making on how to fight COVID-19. That leaves him to focus on what is more within his comfort zone, Russia on the world stage.
Imagine the delight then inside the Kremlin as ventilators made by a subsidiary of Russian state defence giant Rostec were unloaded onto the tarmac at New York’s JFK airport this week.
They were part of a 60 ton delivery of medical supplies – masks and ventilators – to the United States.
Rostec is on the US sanctions list. Any US purchase of Rostec’s products is a breach of Washington’s own sanctions.
There must be a delicious irony for President Putin that sanctioned Russian products can serve as a temporary salve to a US in crisis. A tweet from the Russian Embassy in the US sums it up perhaps best. “Goodnight America” it says over a photo of a city subsumed by water. Kremlin trolling par excellence.
“The Russians had excess supplies,” the US president said. “This was a very nice gesture.” Was he worried about Russian propaganda? “No, not even a little bit.”
Speak to Russian healthcare workers though and they’ll tell you there is no excess of medical supplies.
Anastasia Vasilyeva from the Alliance of Doctors union has consistently and publicly called the Kremlin out for allegedly downplaying the number of cases in Russia. On Thursday, she was arrested as she tried to deliver masks and PPE to hospitals in the Novgorod region.
“The medicine in the country is terrible. We don’t have hospitals, we don’t have the staff, we don’t have a medical industry,” she told Sky News two weeks ago.
“Of course it’s not good for the government to say we have coronavirus and these are the real numbers of deaths. It will just prove the fact that they, the government, President Putin, caused all this to happen.
“We’ll have a death toll a few times higher than in developed countries because medicine here is so bad.”
In the city of Syktyvkar in Russia’s Komi Republic, 53 people, patients and medical staff, caught the virus inside one hospital. The patient zero was reportedly one of the doctors. Two have died, one of them a nurse.
Vasily Shtabnitsky, a Moscow based pulmonologist, says infection control is a huge problem.
“I do think that Russian doctors have expertise in managing severe pneumonia or Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). I think the main challenge is infection control and lack of nurses and other staff.
“There are not enough nurses in ICU and in general care, usually we need a nurse to patient ratio of one to one and I do not know many hospitals with that.
“Many doctors and nurses are in their 50s or 60s, which means they are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19,” Dr Shtabnitsky added.
On Friday a group of medical staff at one of St Petersburg’s top hospitals posted an online video message begging for more PPE so that they can treat patients with COVID-19.
As President Putin mulls his next international aid delivery, he would do well to listen to the growing alarm of his own healthcare workers and make sure they are catered for first.