Fear, Exhaustion, Bravery on the Russian Virus Frontline
6 May, 2020
Yuri Kozyrev / Novaya Gazeta

Monologues of Russian medical workers struggling with one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the world.

Russia is battling the world’s seventh-largest coronavirus outbreak. With over 145,000 officially confirmed COVID-19 cases, local officials do not expect the peak any time soon. 

Amid public concerns over the credibility of the official data, the country’s healthcare system has already been stretched thin. There is a shortage of facilities, specialists, and personal protective equipment for medical workers. The latter group is targeted by the virus disproportionally, although the exact figure of the infected remains unknown. Last month, healthcare workers started a list of medical personnel who died during the COVID-19 pandemic — it already has dozens of names. But with Russia’s Supreme Court cracking down on the spread of “fake news” about the deadly coronavirus pandemic, few medical workers decide to speak out about the healthcare shortfalls or real COVID-19 statistics.

Even before the outbreak, life stories of Russian medical workers have been the ones about need.  

The average doctor’s salary in Russia is 80,000 rubles (around $1,200) while other medical personnel can receive 40,000 rubles (around $600). Junior staff and cleaners even less — some as little as 12,000 rubles (around $170). Decades of mismanaged healthcare reforms and corruption left the system inefficient and struggling from red tape.  

Despite all this, every day, across every Russian region, doctors, nurses, and medical professionals stand on the frontline of the battle with the so-called “invisible enemy.” In a special project, our partner outlet Novaya Gazeta is bringing to light monologues of eight health care providers who share their experiences fighting COVID-19. Hromadske brings you the abridged and condensed versions.

A paramedic from the Moscow region, who asked to remain anonymous. 

On the virus demographics. We have a lot of young people dying. Here, at Ivanteyevskaya hospital, a patient died in intensive care, 25 years old. The young man did not drink, did not smoke, he was the son of our hospital attendant. She tested negative. He was swabbed twice, both times they came back negative. COVID-19 was found posthumously.

On fallen doctors. The thing is, this first and second wave, which has not even reached its peak, will take out about 30% of medics. Who will continue to treat people? For some reason, the authorities don’t think about that. We are not immortal gods - we are ordinary people who will get sick just like everyone else. And even more so because we are weakened by crazy workloads.

Dmitry Belyakov, a paramedic part of an ambulance coronavirus brigade in the city of Zheleznodorozhny near Moscow. 

Photo: Victoria Odissonova / Novaya Gazeta

On life in "coronavirus brigades". I think that on the “coronavirus brigade” you have less chance of getting the virus because you’re going to already confirmed or suspected cases and therefore you take further protective measures. 

… There are two to four coronavirus call-outs a day [...] But my lifestyle has not changed much. I work and live a calm life. I pay my debts. A paramedic’s salary doesn’t mean you’ll pay them off in your life though. 

On official statistics. I don’t believe the official figures. If a person tests positive for coronavirus but dies of heart failure, what did they die from? It can be recorded as either. All our data gathering is built on this [flawed] principle. 

Andrey Atroshchenko, head of the coloproctology department at Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital of the Presidential Administration, which has become a primary facility for COVID-19 patients.

Andrey Atroshchenko. Photo from the personal archive

On what we all need to prepare ourselves for. The number of sick people is so great that, most likely, in the near future, all doctors will have to participate in the elimination of this pandemic no matter their specialty. This problem will affect everyone. So there’s no point sticking your head into the sand. It is better to know the enemy and be ready for it.

On the life inside a hazmat suit. Every time you need to go to the restroom [...] you need to undress and then go through the sanitary inspection room and get dressed again. It takes about 40 minutes. You can last through an 8-hour shift. But there are 12-hour, 24-hour shifts. That’s when you need to think about diapers. I haven’t had to wear them so far, but my colleagues do. 

On seeing your family only from afar. I’m not living with my family at the moment. They are in the country. Every time I test negative for coronavirus, I come and spend a few hours with them on the street, while social distancing. It's hard when the children are waiting for you. They want to hug you, but you can’t hug them. Still, it’s still easier to at least see them from a distance of two meters away than to not see them at all.

A nurse in Moscow, who asked to remain anonymous. 

On exhausting shifts. The protective suit is very hot, it doesn’t let the body breathe, you sweat. The respirator is the most uncomfortable part [...] I sometimes get hypoxia from wearing the respirator for a long time, mainly in the morning, around 5-6 a.m. During these hours you need to take blood and do morning examinations before the next shift arrives, but you don’t have any strength left at all. You sit there and you can’t do anything, there is fog in your head. But you need to keep it together.

On staying on the frontline. I have been working as a nurse for two years and I feel that this is for me. Now is a time when medics are in demand. I can’t go into isolation like some doctors who have switched to online consultations or emergency calls, I do not blame them. That is their right. But I decided for myself — I can’t do that. If I can help here and now, I will help.

A midwife from Ufa, who was among those locked in one of three hospitals placed under full quarantine in the city.

On unannounced lockdowns. Our maternity clinic closed on April 6. We came to work on the 7th. They let us into the quarantine zone without a single word. On the 7th, we still took in four pregnant women. Can you imagine? Pregnant women in the quarantine zone… 

On lack of protective gear. They’ve not given us any [personal protective equipment].  No masks, no caps. There are a few disposable protective kits in the reception department, but they are for emergencies. They ordered us to close off the ventilation with sacks.

On those trying to escape the lockdown. We had a nurse escape from quarantine. We don’t know what’s going to happen to her. They say that she will be detained. She lives with her elderly mother, so she had to run away. We are guarded by the National Guard of Russia.

On sick doctors. They say there are several doctors who are sick. Head of reanimation and head of the morgue… Doctors are also sick in the rheumatology department, in surgery too. Doctors just take some of the drugs they have and continue to work. Because there is no one to replace us.

Photo: Yuri Kozyrev / Novaya Gazeta

An ICU anesthetist from Moscow, who asked to remain anonymous. 

On a "war zone." I have been working in Kommunarka (Moscow’s coronavirus-dedicated hospital - ed.) since March. My family took this news like I was going to war. Phone calls and words of encouragement from home are like letters from the front… 

On the COVID-19 social equalizer. We have people in our hospital lying next to folks from completely different social backgrounds and with completely different views. These include those who flew in on their private jets into Vnukovo-3 [a VIP terminal of the Moscow-based international airport - ed.] from Courchevel [a French Alps ski resort - ed.] and the lonely pensioner who was brought in from home, for example.

An infectious disease specialist from Moscow, who asked to remain anonymous. 

On the hours spent in the work commute. Of course, everyone is very tired, especially since being on duty now means that they can’t sit or lie down, so all 24 hours a person is on their feet and many of the nurses and junior medics travel from far away, whether that’s from the Moscow region or other nearby regions. Their salaries are not very high. But in the regions, including the Moscow region, the salaries are meager and absolutely impossible to survive on. That’s why they go to Moscow hospitals.     

On exhausting red tape. It often happens that we finish our shift at, say, 8 o’clock in the morning but end up staying two, three, or four hours longer in order to complete and formalize all the medical paperwork. I took over an 8 a.m. shift from my colleague, I go about my work business, and at midday, I saw her in one of the resident rooms, and she’s sleeping at the table. I woke her up, it turned out – yes, she completed the paperwork, but since she was on her feet for 24 hours, she simply collapsed at the table.

Photo:​Yuri Kozyrev / Novaya Gazeta

Svetlana Dzhanarova, a healthcare assistant at the Nichogi Regional Infectious Clinical Hospital in Astrakhan, southern Russia.

On having no choice. We have 37 patients with coronavirus. We give them something to eat, we clean. I think we have protection — an apron, pajamas. Many were afraid, many did not come to work. But nobody really asked us. I didn’t even know I could refuse. We were told to come, so I came. 

On garlic. I have never had the flu, I have never been ill with anything. But [..] we eat garlic, we eat onions, drink hot tea with lemon - they say it kills microbes, supports the immune system. We do it both at the hospital and at home, constantly. Garlic and onions everywhere.

/Translated and abridged by Natalie Vikhrov, with materials from Novaya Gazeta correspondent Elena Kostyuchenko. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.