(CN) — A prefect storm is lashing Russia: oil prices have crashed, the economy is in free fall and the coronavirus pandemic is harshly exposing years of government neglect as stressed medics reportedly jump out of windows and medical staff describe working excruciating hours without breaks to even relieve themselves because of a shortage of protective gear.
This crisis is putting Russian President Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime built around oil exports and government brutality to the test.
“It is the most serious challenge they have faced in the last 20 years,” Andrey Kortunov, the director general of the Moscow-based think tank Russian International Affairs Council, said in a telephone interview with Courthouse News. “It will be a bumpy road ahead.”
For weeks, Russia acted as if it was impervious to the coronavirus outbreak. After closing its long border with China at the end of January, it confidently said the virus wasn't a threat.
Government media likened the virus to the flu. Putin ignored it. He was consumed with the stuff of great powers: Wars, weaponry, espionage, treaties, oil markets. On the home front, he was concerned with political intrigue, squashing dissent and cementing his power by changing the constitution to become, in effect, president for life.
All the while, the virus was circulating as thousands of rich Russians returned to Moscow from European ski getaways in the Alps and winter holidays, bringing with them the coronavirus. An estimated 1.2 million people arrived in Moscow before international flights were stopped in late March. People arriving from Western Europe weren't being tested, though, and the virus spread undetected.
By the end of March, even Putin had to turn his attention to the inevitable truth: Russia was sick.
Since then, Russia has become one of the world's worst-hit countries by the pandemic with more than 252,000 confirmed cases — the second-highest after the United States — and more than 2,300 official deaths. The disease is mostly concentrated in Moscow, Russia's cosmopolitan capital with more than 12 million inhabitants.
“So many people thought it was a global joke, they thought it was all a joke. The government said it was just a flu, state TV said it was nothing to worry about,” said Anthony Louis, the editor of an online newspaper, the Moscow Tribune, in an interview. “It kind of hit home only when things started getting bad in Moscow. It was a complete mess until it was way too late.”
The stories from doctors and nurses in Russia are harrowing and a reflection of those heard in Italy, Spain, England and the United States, but with a harsh Russian twist. In Russia, despite many advances and growing wealth since the collapse of communism, the public health care system is creaky to say the least. About a third of medical facilities don't even have running water. Others are depressing bare-bones operations where it is not uncommon to find cockroaches running on the floor. On top of that, medical workers labor for poor pay under opaque directives and state intimidation.
Since March, at least three medics have fallen from windows, reportedly brought to despair over working conditions. Two have died and a third was in critical condition. The paramedic in critical condition, 37-year-old Alexander Shulepov, filmed a video alleging he was forced to work at a hospital in Voronezh, some 280 miles south of Moscow, even though he had tested positive for Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. Police are investigating the incidents.
There is a big difference between hospitals in Moscow and those outside the capital.
In Moscow, the epicenter of Russia's outbreak, the hospital system is described as modern and better equipped to handle the wave of coronavirus patients.