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Coping With Coronavirus: Doctors, Others Struggle Amid Government Inaction

A doctor enters an isolation ward set up at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center in Karachi, Pakistan.
A doctor enters an isolation ward set up at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center in Karachi, Pakistan.

No corner of the globe has been spared from the highly contagious coronavirus -- or the immense challenges of trying to slow its spread.

A variety of different tactics are being employed -- including lockdowns, social distancing, and other restrictive measures. But even when those efforts are implemented they can be undermined by supply shortages and lack of transparency.

RFE/RL looks at the challenges medical workers and others are facing in coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

Some experts say a legacy of decades of secrecy and denying or ignoring the truth in the areas of the former Soviet Union may be impacting how governments there react -- or don't -- to the current crisis.

Doctors in the area and nearby complain that they lack protective gear. And those who point this out are often punished, negatively affecting much of the region's current efforts at tackling the crisis.

A doctor observes through a glass window the condition of a patient in a ward in the Moscow Sklifosovsky emergency hospital treating COVID-19 patients.
A doctor observes through a glass window the condition of a patient in a ward in the Moscow Sklifosovsky emergency hospital treating COVID-19 patients.

Russia: Too Many Cases, Not Enough Beds

Russian President Vladimir Putin was blunt on April 13, saying the situation in the country was grave. He spoke the same day Russia recorded its highest single-day spike in cases, with 2,558 new patients.

The comments also came as video emerged of ambulances waiting in line outside Moscow hospitals struggling to cope with the influx.

"There are already nearly 1,500 patients, all with pneumonia. There are not enough beds. They put patients wherever there's a free space. We informed the ambulance service that we had around 180 spare places, and they brought us 303 patients," said Irina Sheikina, a doctor at a Moscow hospital.

Another doctor at a Moscow hospital told Current Time TV what many already suspected: hospitals in the Russian capital are ill-prepared to cope with the crisis.

"Right now our hospital is preparing for the COVID-19 patients, but we still lack protective equipment such as masks and disposable gowns. We don't have them. In some cases, there aren't even enough syringes, drugs. And this is Moscow," said the doctor, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Vsevolod Shurkhai, a Moscow neurosurgeon, told Current Time that medical staff were being asked to share oral thermometers among up to 40 doctors. Shurkhai said he had filed a complaint with the Prosecutor-General's Office and Rospotrebnadzor, Russia's consumer-safety watchdog.

In the Volgograd region, Tatyana Revva was called in for police questioning after complaining publicly about the lack of protective equipment at the local hospital where she works as a doctor.

Belarus: 'Head In The Sand' Approach

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has dismissed the coronavirus as a "psychosis" and urged his countrymen to drive tractors, drink vodka, and sit in saunas, to fend it off. Belarus has ignored calls to impose tighter restrictions.

The opposition website Charter 97 has accused Lukashenka of "sticking his head in the sand," and suggested that Minsk's lack of action could spell the end of his quarter century of rule.

Few reportedly believe the numbers being reported by the government, with many suspecting flu cases are actually coronavirus infections. Even fewer dare speak out. One who did was Syarhey Satsuk, editor of the online news portal Yezhednevnik, who criticized the government's handling of the crisis and cast doubt on official coronavirus figures.

Satsuk was arrested on March 25 on a corruption charge. Media watchdogs and others, however, suspected he was targeted for his critical coronavirus coverage.

The OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, on March 26 said he was "very much concerned" by Satsuk's detention.

Desir insisted that journalists "should not be intimidated, prosecuted, or detained for reporting on issues of public interest and on the COVID-19 situation."

Satsuk was released on bail on April 4.

Meanwhile, doctors in Belarus complain of long hours and little protective equipment, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported.

Hotels, sanatoriums, and even space at an airport has been transformed into temporary housing for the country's stretched medical personnel. One doctor said he continued to work even after being confirmed with the coronavirus.

A doctor examines a man, suspected of being infected with the coronavirus, at a clinic in the town of Irpin outside Kyiv.
A doctor examines a man, suspected of being infected with the coronavirus, at a clinic in the town of Irpin outside Kyiv.

Ukraine: High Corruption, Low Communication

In neighboring Ukraine, doctors are struggling as well.

"I get calls, people say, 'Come and check if my mom has coronavirus.' I comfort them the best that I can," said Yaroslav Semchyshyn, chief doctor in a town of 5,000 people in the Ivano-Frankivsk region in western Ukraine.

"As far as I know, there are no tests even at the district level. I don't know about the region, there is very little communication," Semchyshyn, who did not want the name of the town published for fear of repercussions, told RFE/RL on March 27.

Corruption, long the bane of Ukraine, may be hampering efforts to get needed supplies. At least that's the contention of Arsen Zhumadilov, head of the country's new national procurement company.

Zhumadilov told RFE/RL on April 8 that his efforts to procure equipment were stymied mainly by a now-dismissed health minister.

Uzbekistan: High Toll Among Medical Workers

Doctors in the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan are also paying a high price. The situation in Andijon appeared especially critical. Shukhrat Abdurakhmonov, mayor of the town that witnessed major unrest in 2005, said on April 12 that out of 90 coronavirus patients at a local hospital, 78 were medical workers.

"The other 12 were in contact with medical workers" the mayor added. A doctor working at the hospital where all patients are kept isolated disputed the mayor's numbers, telling RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that there were 56 medical workers under quarantine, of which four of them are doctors and the rest nurses.

As elsewhere in the region and other former Soviet states, authorities in Uzbekistan appeared less than eager to delve into the details of the coronavirus crisis.

A representative of the Health Ministry refused to comment and @Koronavirusinfouz -- the Uzbek government's Telegram channel that provides official information on the spread of COVID-19 in Uzbekistan -- did not carry the information shared by Abdurakhmonov.

A medical worker uses a forehead thermometer to screen the temperature of a visitor in an Almaty hospital.
A medical worker uses a forehead thermometer to screen the temperature of a visitor in an Almaty hospital.

Kazakhstan: Major Hospital Under Lockdown

High coronavirus infection rates among doctors and other medical staffers also appears to be a problem in neighboring Kazakhstan.

According to the Kazakh Health Ministry, as of April 13, 211 medical staffers at the country's hospitals had been infected with the coronavirus.

According to Lyudmila Byurabekova, chairwoman of the committee for the safety of goods and services of the Health Ministry, hospitals lack protective equipment, including masks, and work schedules are not being followed, suggesting doctors and other staff are facing long hours.

The biggest city hospital in Almaty is under quarantine after 12 doctors were infected with coronavirus over the weekend.

Kyrgyzstan: Social-Media Outcry

In Kyrgyzstan, it's not always a lack of protective equipment that is the problem. Bektur Apyshev posted a picture on Twitter of a protective mask he said he and other medical personnel were supplied with at the hospital where he works. A few days later, Apyshev's Twitter account was mysteriously shut down. Later, on April 12, Apyshev posted a video saying he had lied about the masks.

That apology, suspected by many of coming after pressure from authorities, caused a social-media outcry and even one deputy came to the defense of Apyshev.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports that authorities in Kyrgyzstan are keeping a watchful eye out for social-media posts critical of the country's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pakistan: Lack Of Equipment Leads To Protests

It's not only doctors in the former Soviet Union nations that are suffering. Like elsewhere, ill-equipped doctors in Pakistan are falling victim as well to the coronavirus.

Two doctors and a nurse are reported to have died from COVID-19, the disease contracted from coronavirus. More than 150 medical personnel are reported to have contracted the virus.

Dr. Fazle Rabi at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad puts the high infection rate among medical staff down to a lack of protective equipment. Rabi recently told Radio Mashaal he expects those numbers to rise if such gear is not supplied soon to the country's hospitals.

On April 14, nine doctors at a hospital in Punjab's Multan district were confirmed as being infected with coronavirus, the highest number among medical staffers in a single day.

Fed up with the lack of supplies, doctors in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan Province, held a demonstration last week with dozens arrested. They were later released after the provincial government vowed to secure the needed equipment and distribute it across the province. A strike by doctors, as a result, was also called off.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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