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'The Chief Doctor Won't Answer': Amid Surge, Russian Medical Workers Seek Missing COVID Hazard Pay

A medical worker pickets for COVID hazard payments in front of a St. Petersburg memorial for colleagues who have died of the disease.
A medical worker pickets for COVID hazard payments in front of a St. Petersburg memorial for colleagues who have died of the disease.

In early June, ambulance paramedic Tamara Ivanova was called into work from her vacation and ordered to undergo a coronavirus test with the rest of the medical workers in her village some 40 kilometers from the Novgorod region town of Staraya Rusa.

"They gathered us together and we all set off to give our samples -- in one van," she recalled. "I asked the head medic why the whole country is maintaining physical distancing while we crowd into one van, but he didn't answer me. Some of us wore masks, some didn't. But the people who took our samples were wearing full protective gear, afraid of being infected."

Her test came back negative and the next day she took over an ambulance from a colleague who was already showing the first symptoms of coronavirus infection. That colleague subsequently tested positive.

"I used the same equipment, the same EKG machine, and worked with the same documents," Ivanova said. After only a few days, she began experiencing symptoms and a second coronavirus test came back positive. She was on sick leave from June 14 until July 10.

She doesn't know how bad her illness was because she was not able to have her lungs X-rayed or undergo a CT scan.

Tamara Ivanova
Tamara Ivanova

Since then, Ivanova has been fighting to receive the supplemental COVID hazard pay that President Vladimir Putin promised to Russian medical workers back in April.

Initially, she was given a document that she was qualified for the payment because she had been infected on the job. However, that document was canceled and a second one issued just a few days later saying that she had been infected "in the course of daily life."

"It is true that I did not have a confirmed COVID patient during the days that I worked, but I was in contact with the other medic," she told RFE/RL. "I don't know how I can prove exactly where I was infected, but I definitely was exposed to increased risk while at work."

Ivanova added that the other medic in this case had also been denied the hazard-pay bonus. "How they can justify not paying her, I have no idea," Ivanova said. "The head doctor doesn't answer our calls."

Staraya Rusa head doctor Sergei Zanin also did not answer the phone when RFE/RL called for comment and his office did not respond to an e-mailed request.

'Payments Started When We Raised A Fuss'

Across Russia, medical workers tell similar stories, saying that local officials have prevented them from receiving COVID-related bonuses promised under two presidential decrees issued in April. Decree No. 415 promises bonuses to medical workers who risk exposure to the novel coronavirus while at work, while No. 484 offers payments to medical workers who are confirmed to have been infected on the job.

In both cases, many front-line workers say payments are either made partially or not at all.

"Payments started when we started making a fuss," said Vladimir Baranov, an emergency-room physician in the Sestroretsk district of St. Petersburg. "But we shouldn't have had to. We should be paid for the risk we are exposed to, as is written in Decree No. 415. When the problems with the payments started, I was furious. I didn't understand why they didn't make the payments that were promised. And the attitude of our bosses and their reaction to doctors' demands just made us angrier."

Vladimir Baranov
Vladimir Baranov

Raising a fuss has not worked in all cases. In the Murmansk region town of Kandalaksha, doctors wrote a collective letter to prosecutors complaining about the nonpayments, said Oksana Chistyakova, head of the Deistviye (Action) medical-workers support group in Murmansk. After a probe, prosecutors said they found "numerous violations" in the hospital's procedures and ordered them rectified by September 11. No action has been taken, Chistyakova told RFE/RL.

"The Health Ministry's position seems to be: 'Go to court,'" she said. "'If the court says we have to pay, we will pay.'"

'Pay The Price For COVID'

The tensions come as the number of coronavirus infections in Russia has risen again. According to official figures, the number of new infections rose from about 5,000 per day in early September to more than 11,000 per day in recent days. On October 6, 11,615 new cases were recorded, and 11,115 were recorded on October 7.

Also on October 7, 202 COVID deaths were registered, the first time that figure has topped 200 since July. Many analysts suspect that Russia's official coronavirus statistics, particularly the number of deaths, are significantly understated.

All the medical workers who spoke with RFE/RL said they were seeing signs of a growing second wave of infections.

"We are preparing for the worst and, in general, it has already begun," said , an ambulance medic at Clinic No. 114 in St. Petersburg. "The situation with personal protective gear (PPG) isn't very good. After we complained to the media back in June, they began giving us a sufficient number of protective gowns, but not in the right sizes. I wear a size 38 and looked like a ghost in a size 58."

Viktoria Mikheyeva
Viktoria Mikheyeva

"Our ambulances have PPG, but just barely," said Pavel Ryzhkov, a doctor and Deistviye head in St. Petersburg. "If there is a spike in demand, supplies could be used up quickly.... The number of patients is increasing, and lines of ambulances are already forming at hospitals."

The Deistviye group planned a national protest under the slogan "Pay the price for COVID," to be held between September 27 and October 5 in around 30 cities. But almost everywhere, the authorities denied permission for rallies, usually citing the epidemiological situation.

In the town of Pechenga in the Murmansk region, an application by organizer Natalya Chernomashentseva was denied under the pretext that she did not have any documents confirming that she was empowered to organize a protest. "I am interested myself to find out who could possibly issue such a document for me," Chernomashentseva told RFE/RL.

After medical personnel in St. Petersburg were denied permission to protest, they decided to draw attention to their cause by organizing one-person protests of medical workers holding blank signs in front of a makeshift memorial for colleagues who had died since the pandemic began. The "Pay the price for COVID" slogan was then added to the photographs and they were distributed on social media.

Chistakova told RFE/RL that the frustrations over the state's failure to pay the promised bonuses during the first wave of the pandemic had demoralized medical workers even as a second wave seems imminent.

"Many doctors are simply not mentally ready for a second wave because they have not received the payments they were promised," she said. "On a 10-point scale, I would say that the emotional readiness of many medical workers is currently at about two"

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Katerina Klepikovskaya of the North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service

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