Coronavirus causing pain for Putin

Published by The Mail on Sunday (26th April, 2020)

Badly paid doctors have quit in droves, fearing for their lives after being told to treat coronavirus patients without adequate protective equipment in a chronically underfunded health system. 

Ambulances crews queue for hours to deliver patients to overloaded hospitals where medical staff have run out of oxygen – yet desperately needed ventilators have been bought by billionaires setting up makeshift clinics in their mansions.

The oil price collapse has turned the country’s main revenue stream into a trickle, while there is mounting fury that its government is favouring its rich cronies over small business owners with bailouts. 

These are the perilous effects of the pandemic in Russia. Now analysts and President Vladimir Putin’s political enemies even wonder if his long and brutal reign might fall victim to the crisis.

‘Putin doesn’t care about any loss of life, only loss of power,’ said former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, now human rights campaigner.

‘One-man dictatorships are dangerous but brittle. If the economic and health crises combine to overcome people’s fear of the police, things might change very quickly. Putin’s current allies might take the opportunity to turn on him to better save themselves.’

The former KGB man-turned- president, who prizes stability and promotes himself as a global strongman, suddenly looks weak against an invisible new foe. The latest figures claim 74,588 confirmed cases among Russia’s 145 million population, with 681 fatalities – although earlier figures showed a 37 per cent spike in ‘pneumonia’ deaths, leading to claims the state was manipulating data.

‘The government is openly lying,’ said Anastasia Vasilyeva, an eye doctor, president of a medical trade union and ally of a key opposition leader. She was detained by police a few days later on a trip to investigate hospital supplies and fined for defying lockdown rules.

Scores of medics have quit their jobs in at least five cities after being told to work with infected patients with inadequate protection. Doctors earn an average of £815 a month.

In Moscow, the epicentre of Russia’s outbreak, staff shifted to critical care duties were made to write resignation letters after refusing to work without protection. ‘They want to save lives but don’t want to go to certain death,’ said one paramedic’s daughter.

Footage from St Petersburg showed stricken patients lying on bare mattresses in corridors. ‘There’s no oxygen,’ said a health worker.

In another hospital in the city that specialises in infectious diseases, a third of suspected or confirmed coronavirus cases were medical staff. Many hospital workers were incensed by Putin’s stunt of despatching a planeload of medical supplies to New York – including some made by a firm subject to US sanctions – when they were having to buy equipment online.

There has also been anger from small business owners over bailout efforts – far smaller than in other leading nations– that are focused on big firms, many controlled by oligarchs close to the Kremlin. ‘Why now, when I need help, does my government turn its rear-end to me?’ asked Natalia, whose marketing business in Novosibirsk is crashing before her eyes.

Mikhail, 58, whose Moscow firm supplying building materials to the state employed 19 people, blames ‘The Dwarf’ – a derogatory term for Putin – for destroying his business during lockdown. ‘It was this idiot who announced that employers were obliged to pay salaries in full but didn’t say where the money would come from. I fired everyone,’ he said.

Russia had a decent health system when communism collapsed in 1991. When the current crisis hit, it had more ventilators per capita than Britain – but most are old and many of them are in Moscow and St Petersburg. 

To iron out regional discrepancies, the government doled out emergency funds – but hospitals seeking ventilators found they were being grabbed by rich families planning to self-isolate in splendour. ‘We’ve sold everything in our warehouse,’ one supplier told the Moscow Times last week.

Another said she had such a long waiting list for the £20,000 devices ‘we’ve had to stop taking orders’.

The wealthy admit to buying ventilators. ‘We’ve got one and are trying to get two more,’ said one member of a billionaire family with a mansion in Rublyovka, the Moscow suburb favoured by Russia’s ruling elite.

The pandemic could not have come at worse time for the Kremlin – and for a president who promotes the image that he alone can revive national greatness while delivering stability to his sprawling nation.

Already, Putin’s popularity had slipped to its lowest level for seven years after he raised the pension age to 65 for men in a nation with an average male life expectancy of 67. Putin had hoped that a Victory Day celebration next month marking 75 years since the end of the Second World War would boost his support by appealing to patriotism but it has been postponed. He also had to scrap a plebiscite on constitutional reforms that allow him to stay in power until 2036.

‘All of his plans have been thrown into chaos by Covid-19,’ said James Nixey, of the Chatham House think-tank. ‘This would challenge any competent government and Russia’s government could never be called competent.’

Mr Nixey said the primary aim of Putin’s regime was to retain power. ‘I do not see this as the immediate end but it hastens his end.’

Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security, said that although Putin, 67, retains the vital support of the security forces, this crisis ‘hits all his weakest points since there is no straightforward threat and it is so unpredictable’. Putin is seemingly bored by domestic issues; one source told me it took the health minister six months to fix an appointment to see the president before the crisis.

At first, the Kremlin moved sharply when the pandemic flared in Wuhan, quickly closing the 2,600-mile border with China. But it was slow to react as rich Russians brought the disease home from Europe’s ski resorts and cities.

Putin told people ‘everything’s under control’. Then he turned up at a Moscow hospital in a yellow hazmat suit, before shaking hands with the chief doctor, who soon after was diagnosed with the virus.

The Russian leader announced a ‘non-working week’ but shied away from telling people to stay home, so many rushed to Black Sea resorts. Officials then hastily closed hotels and cancelled flights. Characteristically, Putin stepped back and let others take unpopular decisions, such ordering a lockdown on March 28.

This gave two other politicians the spotlight: Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Mikhail Mishustin, who was previously in charge of the tax office (a place filled with useful secrets) and who became prime minister earlier this year. Putin has never tolerated the slightest challenge to his authority yet both these technocrats have won plaudits.

‘We are used to seeing Putin as top dog but he distanced himself from unpopular decisions in case they backfired,’ said Ben Noble, an expert on Russia at University College London. ‘Now a move he made to protect himself could come back to bite him.’

The Kremlin admits Russia will not see a peak until mid-May, although there is no sign yet it is close to flattening the curve of infections. One survey found 60 per cent of Russians do not trust official information on the virus.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said ‘the coronavirus developments would not pass by our country without any crisis elements’ but added that Putin believes ‘human life is a priority’. How many of his citizens believe that now?

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