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Russia Should Support Health Workers, Not Silence Them

New Fines, Instructions Send Chilling Messages

A medical specialist wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) takes a break at the City Clinical Hospital Number 15 which delivers treatment to COVID-19 patients in Moscow, Russia. May 25, 2020. © 2020 REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

As Russia reports record numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths, authorities seem paradoxically concerned with preventing health workers from talking about the crisis, hospital overcrowding, and shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE). 

On October 12, a court in Novgorod region fined a surgeon, Yuri Korovin, 50,000 rubles (about US$630) ostensibly for being photographed without a surgical mask. The photo showed him receiving a donation of PPE and other equipment from Alliance of Doctors, an independent trade union. His prosecution and fine raise concern because its hard to unlink it from the fact the alliance has been in the authorities’ crosshairs for months for repeatedly speaking out about the lack of PPE and other problems health workers face in the pandemic.

Anastassiya Tarabrina, the Alliance’s Deputy Chairperson, told me health workers in hospitals and clinics not designated as “Covid-19 hospitals” are reporting shortages of PPE. In some cases, medical personnel have one surgical mask for a whole shift and no other PPE is provided.

But authorities seem focused on silencing people who speak out or try to help.

Last week, health workers and residents in Kurgan wrote to the presidential administration complaining about the underreporting of Covid-19 data and lack of hospital beds and medical personnel. Police questioned some of the people who signed the letter.

On October 16, the prosecutor’s office summoned Andrey Pivovarov, director of Open Russia, a civic movement that authorities have repeatedly harassed. Prosecutors sought information about the movement’s crowdfunding efforts for PPE.  

And then on October 28, the Health Ministry instructed all medical facilities that any public comments about the Covid-19 situation have to be pre-approved by the ministry’s press service. Later, the assistant health minister stated the instruction applied only to comments on prevention and treatment of the disease and “does not affect doctors” capacity to comment on various aspects of their work, including problematic ones." However, given the retaliation against medical personnel who offered critical comments, it’s reasonable to believe this instruction is intended to have a chilling effect.

Russian authorities should stop trying to suppress information about Covid-19. This can have terrible outcomes. Billboards in Russia hail health workers as heroes. Authorities need to stop bullying these heroes into silence about the daily challenges they face.

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