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While some countries clap for doctors, health workers in Russia face open hostility

Doctors in Russia are facing distrust as they battle the Covid-19 pandemic. CNN's Matthew Chance explores why.

Posted: May 28, 2020 10:59 AM


Frontline medical workers in the US, the UK and elsewhere may face major risks in their efforts to battle the coronavirus pandemic, but they've also seen an outpouring of public appreciation. In Russia, health workers say they face fear, mistrust -- and even open hostility.

Tatyana Revva, an intensive care specialist in the central district hospital of the city of Kalach-on-Don in southern Russia, shared a video in late March about equipment shortages with the Doctors Alliance, an advocacy group aligned with Russia's political opposition. After the video went viral, she said, she was summoned by local police about it.

"I was called to the police and gave a statement with a lawyer, but another statement against me was sent to the prosecutor's office," Revva told CNN via Skype after finishing a night shift.

Revva said law-enforcement investigators subsequently checked the availability of PPE and ventilators at her hospital.

"But the check was carried out a month after I flagged the problems," she said. "You can imagine how much had been purchased in a month after the buzz the video made."

Revva says she has not been fined by the police but now fears professional retaliation. Police have not responded to CNN's request for comment. The hospital administration could not immediately be reached for comment, but the hospital's chief doctor, Oleg Kumeiko, said in a March 29 statement on YouTube that the information posted online about PPE shortages was "absolutely untrue."

Rumors and conspiracy theories abound in Russia about Covid-19: that the virus was invented by doctors to control society; that medical workers are hiding the true extent of the casualties from the public; or that medical personnel are falsely attributing deaths to Covid-19 to receive more money from the government.

Disinformation and conspiracy theories are prevalent on Russian TV and online, and media experts say they are corroding public trust in the medical profession.

Alexandra Arkhipova, a social anthropologist in Moscow, said the mistrust of the medical profession reflects broader mistrust of the state. While some Russians see doctors as heroes, Arkhipova said, many in Russian society see them as "traitors or villains" participating in plans to control people.

"[Russian] people don't believe in state medicine, they only believe in doctors they know personally," Arkhipova told CNN, referring to Russia's public healthcare system.

The desperation of Russian doctors facing public disdain, and the overwhelming pressure on them at work, has emerged as grim theme in Russia's pandemic after a series of mysterious deaths: One frontline ambulance doctor, Alexander Shulepov, sustained severe head injuries after falling out of a window — two other doctors died in similar circumstances.

But it is the coronavirus that is killing Russian doctors in large numbers. Just over a hundred medical personnel have died so far, according to official figures. But health care workers, skeptical of government figures, have compiled their own unofficial tally of colleagues who died fighting the pandemic: more than 300.

Even official reports in state media admit that thousands of medical workers are now infected.

Stella Korchinskaya, an x-ray specialist at Reutov Central City Clinical Hospital in the Moscow region, said she was told by hospital officials they were just treating patients with pneumonia and was given practically no means of protection at her hospital. She says she has now tested positive for the coronavirus herself.

"When the epidemic started, we had practically no means of protection, we did not have respirators, we did not have basic PPE," Korchinskaya told CNN from her bed. "We had to protect ourselves how we could. I bought respirators via the Internet, I bought glasses in a hardware store, before they closed them during lockdown, with my own money."

In an interview posted to the hospital's Instagram account, director, Garik Khachatryan denied there were shortages of PPE.

Korchinskaya appealed to the Doctors Alliance for additional equipment, which responded by sending several boxes of PPE. This, she said, didn't go down well with the hospital administrators.

"They secretly recorded me on video while the deputy head doctor started asking where that PPE was. At that moment, the PPE was being sneaked into the hospital, but I told them it was at my home so they wouldn't find it. We gave it out later that night. Then I got sick, so they didn't have time to discipline me," Korchinskaya said.

But you know the plight of doctors is bad when falling sick with coronavirus feels like a lucky escape.

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