As deaths rise, Russian doctors despair at low vaccine rateWednesday, October 20, 2021
MOSCOW (AP) — Dr Georgy Arbolishvili doesn't need to see government statistics or hear about the records being broken every day for infections and deaths to know that Russia is struggling through a particularly alarming phase of the novel coronavirus pandemic. He simply looks around his filled-to-capacity intensive care unit at Moscow's Hospital No 52.
With only about a third of Russia's 146 million people vaccinated against COVID-19, the country has hovered near 1,000 reported deaths per day for weeks and surpassed it last Saturday — a situation that Arbolishvili says “causes despair.”
“The majority of ICU patients in grave condition are unvaccinated, he told The Associated Press. These illnesses “could have been very easily avoided if a person had been vaccinated.”
With a record 1,015 fatalities reported yesterday, the country's death toll is now 225,325 — by far the highest in Europe, even though most experts agree even that figure is an undercount.
Those statistics “are directly linked to vaccinations,” Arbolishvili said. “The countries with a high share of those vaccinated don't have so bad mortality numbers.”
Even though vaccines are plentiful, Russians have shown hesitancy and scepticism when it comes to getting vaccinated, which has been blamed on conflicting signals sent by authorities since the pandemic began last year.
Even as ICUs have filled in recent weeks, life in Moscow has continued as usual, with restaurants and movie theatres brimming with people, crowds swarming nightclubs and karaoke bars and commuters widely ignoring mask mandates on public transportation.
That makes medical workers like Dr Natavan Ibragimova shudder.
“I think about sleepless nights when we get a huge number of patients who didn't even bother to use banal protective means,” the internist at Hospital No 52 said.
Patients who have gotten the vaccine usually don't have serious symptoms, Ibragimova added, while the unvaccinated come to regret it.
“Patients who survive after a grave course of illness tell us when they are discharged, 'Doctor, you were right and I will tell everyone that it's necessary to get the vaccine,'” she said.
Until now, the Kremlin has ruled out a new nationwide lockdown like the one imposed early in the pandemic that dealt a heavy blow to the economy and sapped President Vladimir Putin's popularity. The surging infections have raised the pressure on the health-care system and prompted Cabinet officials to suggest that most public sector workers take a week off.
Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, who heads the novel coronavirus task force, suggested yesterday that such a non-working period start October 30 and last through the following week when four of seven days already are state holidays. The Cabinet will ask Putin to authorise the move, which would still keep many businesses in the service sector open.
Authorities also have raised pressure on medical workers, teachers and public servants to get vaccinated, but the pace has stayed sluggish. Putin has underlined the importance of vaccinations but has emphasised that it should be voluntary.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted that while the Government has done everything to make vaccinations easily available, it should have been more proactive in encouraging it.
“Obviously, more should have been done to explain the lack of alternative to vaccination,” Peskov told reporters.
Authorities have set up vaccination sites in shopping malls and other facilities at clinics where shots are offered without any advance booking and lines. They also have used lotteries, bonuses and other incentives to get vaccinated, without much success.
In August 2020, Russia boasted of being the first country in the world to authorise a coronavirus vaccine even though it was only tested on a few dozen of people at the time, proudly naming the shot Sputnik V in honour of its pioneering space programme.
While extolling Sputnik V and three other domestic vaccines developed later, state-controlled media derided Western-made shots, a controversial message that many saw as feeding public doubts about vaccines in general.
Asked if authorising imports of foreign vaccines would help, Peskov said the scepticism isn't limited to domestic shots. So far, the World Health Organization and the European Union has not authorised the use of Sputnik V, and Peskov emphasized that the issue should be resolved on an equal basis.
While resisting a nationwide lockdown, the Kremlin empowered regional authorities across the country to decide on restrictions depending on their local situation.
Many of Russia's 85 regions already have restricted attendance at large public events and limited access to theatres, restaurants and other venues. Some have made vaccination compulsory for certain public servants and people over 60.