Why Russia's Coronavirus Fate Is Complicated - OZY | A Modern Media Company
People donating blood at the Blood Transfusion Department of the Pirogov Russian Children's Clinical Hospital in Moscow. The amount of people willing to donate blood has decreased in several Russian regions due to cancellation of donor events and false fears of infection. (Photo by Mikhail JaparidzeTASS via Getty Images)

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Europe’s largest country is both ready — and not — for a major coronavirus outbreak.

By Dan Peleschuk

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued its deadly global march last month, Russia drew skepticism over its low infection numbers. It was the same old story, critics claimed: Eager to stem the flow of negative information, an authoritarian government was suppressing the true scope of the problem.

Sure, the Kremlin’s no stranger to massaging or manufacturing information, whether to sideline its political opponents at home or fuel a war abroad. And President Vladimir Putin has indeed appeared eager to play down the severity of his country’s outbreak — saying the situation was “under control” and early measures like closing the country’s land border with China had contained the outbreak.

But this week, the official tally has spiked — with at least 2,700 people infected as of Wednesday. But here’s a thought: Maybe Russia’s ready for what’s coming. After all: 

Russia has around three times more hospital beds per capita than the United States.

That’s according to the latest available statistics from the World Bank, which found that Russia’s state-run health care system boasts 8.2 beds per 1,000 people, compared to America’s 2.9. Meanwhile, it’s also got four physicians per 1,000 residents, whereas the U.S. has 2.6.

But there’s a catch, says Vasiliy Vlassov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow: The quality of that workforce isn’t exactly stellar. “But it is definitely better than in China or any other traditional developing country,” Vlassov adds. In recent years, for example, cardiologists in heart disease-rich Russia have shown some success in treating heart attacks, leading to a reduction in hospital mortality, says fellow researcher Martin McKee, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

And that, in a nutshell, is the paradox of Russia’s chronically underfunded health care system: Sprawling yet underdeveloped, it’s theoretically equipped for an impending coronavirus crisis — yet not at all prepared. First, consider the number of hospital beds. Along with other former Soviet countries, Russia leads Europe in the amount of beds per capita. But experts have questioned how many of them can be converted for intensive care, since that’s where severe coronavirus cases will inevitably end up.

Ivanovo Region Clinical Hospital

A recent bombshell report on child health care found that 52 percent of Russian medical facilities don’t have hot water, while 30 percent don’t have running water at all.

Source Vladimir Smirnov/Getty

Then there’s the recent bombshell report on child health care by Russia’s Audit Chamber, the government’s financial oversight body. It found that 52 percent of Russian medical facilities don’t have hot water, while 30 percent don’t have running water at all. The Ministry of Health took issue with those findings, claiming government auditors were counting places like storage spaces, garages and similar units. Its own figures are far different: Only 3.5 percent have no running water, while a mere 6.5 percent (not the audit’s 35 percent) lack indoor plumbing.

Meanwhile, both World Bank figures were collected either before or during the government’s campaign to restructure the health care bureaucracy. According to Anastasia Vasilyeva, head of the Doctors’ Alliance, it led to the disappearance of some 30,000 jobs and the closure of several thousand facilities. So while Russia is well-stocked with around 40,000 ventilators, or roughly 27 per 100,000 people — compared to 18 for every 100,000 people in the U.S, according to an estimate from Johns Hopkins University — they may not matter if there aren’t enough specialists to operate them, Vasilyeva adds.

Disparity is also a major issue. Outside Moscow or St. Petersburg, many clinics and hospitals scattered across far-flung settlements through the vast country lack even basic supplies, such as masks and gowns, says Andrei Konoval, the leader of a health workers union. Despite that fact, the Kremlin has shipped off medical aid to various countries — including Italy, China, Venezuela and, just this week, the United States — in what most assume is a geopolitical muscle flex.

Yet the country’s geography might also play to Russia’s favor: Its population density, around 22 people per square mile, is a small fraction of hotspots like the U.S. (94 people per square mile) and Italy (532). About two-thirds of the coronavirus cases reported in Russia are in Moscow. Epidemiologists have theorized that while coronavirus may be more difficult for rural areas to treat due to lack of facilities, they may stay virus-free longer by virtue of their isolation.

But in general, says Konoval, “there’s not a sense that our health care system has been developing in the right direction in recent years.” And as the pandemic digs through the world’s largest country by land area, we’ll find out soon enough how much that’s true.

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