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'I Put On My Spacesuit And Go Off To Save The World': Buryat Bodybuilder Spends Lockdown Helping COVID-19 Patients In Moscow


People around the world have spent their idle weeks in lockdown baking sourdough bread, learning to knit, or just zoning out with television and video games. But for 35-year-old Aldar, who requested his last name not be used or his face shown in this article, that was not enough.

About a year and a half ago, Aldar moved from his native Buryatia region to Moscow and found work as a loan officer in a bank. When the coronavirus lockdown was imposed in the Russian capital in late March, he was among the bank staff sent to do minimal work at home until further notice.

But after only about 10 days, the bodybuilding enthusiast had had enough. Realizing that he couldn't sit around indefinitely, Aldar resolved to find something useful to do.

"I figured I'd go work as a volunteer," he told RFE/RL. "There are a lot of lonely old people or families with many children or whatever who could use some help.... But then totally by accident, another idea popped up."

Around that time, in mid-April, a friend shared an article on social media describing how Swedish Crown Princess Sofia had taken a three-day emergency training program to become a medical assistant and had begun working at a Stockholm hospital that treats COVID-19 patients.

"I wrote [under the post] that I thought it was an inspiring act," Aldar recalled. "And another friend wrote back, 'Would you go and work as a nurse?' And I answered, 'Yes.'"

Medical workers at a temporary medical facility established for COVID-19 patients at a Moscow hospital.
Medical workers at a temporary medical facility established for COVID-19 patients at a Moscow hospital.

Others argued at the time that the princess was only looking to promote herself with a flashy public gesture – which Aldar said was why he did not want his last name to be published.

"Why do I need [such accusations]?" he said.

The next day, Aldar began calling around Moscow hospitals and asking if they needed volunteers. "I told them that I had only basic medical knowledge, but that I'd like to help," he said. "I asked if they needed cleaners, and they said they did."

Cleaning, Lifting Spirits

For the last six weeks, Aldar has worked full-time without any days off at the hospital (which he also requested remain unnamed), donning personal protective gear that he refers to as his "spacesuit" and slathering himself with disinfectant that he laughingly calls his "eau de cologne."

"We wipe our masks and glasses with anti-fogging fluid, but over the course of six hours of work, they fog up anyway," Aldar explained. "The glasses and mask press on your face so hard that after you take them off, it still hurts for a long time."

At first the process of putting on or taking off all his gear took him about half an hour, he said. Now he is down to less than 15 minutes.

He works without breaks or food.

It's not exciting work, but Aldar is glad to be helping people.
It's not exciting work, but Aldar is glad to be helping people.

"There is no time for a smoke or a snack," he said. "And we aren't allowed to, anyway. In order to eat, we'd have to leave the infection zone, take off our equipment, take a shower, and only then sit down to eat. So they feed us only after our shift is over."

When he started, Aldar confessed, he expected the work to be exciting, full of energy and adrenaline.

"I guess I had seen too much television," he said. In reality, he cleans up after patients who are unable to use the toilet, mops floors, and generally disinfects the wards.

But he says the contact with patients makes the whole experience worthwhile. He tries to speak with everyone, to encourage them, and to help them feel less isolated from the outside world. Such interaction, he believes, helps them recover faster.

Illness And Loss

"Everyone wants to talk," he said. "It is a ward where people can't leave for the entire time of their hospital stay. They have a toilet, a shower, a refrigerator, and a tea kettle. For many of them, this is a serious experience that they will never forget. They ask me what is going on in the world.... They need distraction, to speak to someone, to joke around."

On top of illness, many of Aldar's patients are also coping with the loss of their jobs and poverty.

"Sometimes I walk into the ward and some debt collector or a bank is calling a patient. They insist on some payment or that the patient come to the bank," he said. "But a lot of them have no jobs, no money, no way to make any payments. They lie there, sick, and on top of that they have no idea what will become of them or their families. It is really hard to witness these personal tragedies."

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Although Aldar came to the hospital as a volunteer, he was informed he would receive a basic salary of 11,000 ($160) rubles per month and a bonus for overtime and to compensate for the dangerous conditions. He said he had not received any money yet.

"Money wasn't the point," he said. "The bank continues to pay me for the small amount of work I do for them from home. That issue hasn't been a problem for me."

Unlike many Russian hospitals, Aldar's has experienced no shortages of protective gear, medicines, or ventilators, he said.

At first, Aldar didn't tell his relatives in Buryatia what he was doing so they wouldn't worry. But they soon found out through mutual friends on social media.

"Their first reaction was fear for me," Aldar recalled. "But now they are proud of me. They haven't tried to talk me out of it. They understand what I'm doing. Why should I sit around doing nothing when I can actually help someone? I don't consider myself a hero, but I am helping people who are worse off than I am -- that is true. That makes me feel good. There is a huge misfortune sweeping the world now and it demands that everyone do their part."

"Sometimes I imagine that I am the hero in some film," he laughed. "I put on my spacesuit and go off to save the world."

As of June 3, Russia had officially reported more than 430,000 cases of coronavirus infection and 5,215 fatalities, although some analysts suspect the country's official figures are significantly understated.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Viktoria Polyanskaya of the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service

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