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COVID-19: Putin Says He May Bring In Defense Ministry; Iran's Death Toll Surpasses 4,500

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A municipal worker sprays disinfectant on an empty street in Moscow.

The global death toll from the coronavirus is more than 119,700 with 1.92 million infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of COVID-19 developments in RFE/RL's broadcast regions.

Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin says the coronavirus situation is "changing for the worse" and that Russia may draw on the Defense Ministry's resources to tackle the crisis.

Putin made the comments on April 13, as Russia's coronavirus crisis-response task force reported 2,558 new cases of the disease in the country, a record daily rise.

The nationwide tally now stands at 18,328, while the number of coronavirus-related deaths rose by 18 to 148, according to the task force.

The official tally has been doubted by critics in Russia and abroad, who suspect the number is being undercounted by health authorities.

Speaking at a meeting with senior officials broadcast on state television, Putin said "the situation is changing almost on a daily basis, and, unfortunately, it is changing for the worse."

The number of cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is growing "while there is an increasing number of patients with severe symptoms," the Russian leader said.

He added that the next few weeks would prove decisive in Russia’s battle to slow the contagion and said Russia's military could become involved in further response measures, such as assistance by military medical staff.

“All capabilities, including the capabilities of the Russian Defense Ministry, can also be used here, if the need arises," Putin said.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova told the Russian president that the country has 40,000 hospital beds for COVID-19 patients and plans to increase the number to 95,000.

Why Numbers Don’t Tell The Full Story

A daily compilation of global coronavirus cases by Johns Hopkins University is currently the most comprehensive in the world, but it relies on information provided by governments.

In many countries, there are restrictions on releasing such information or reasons why the full story might not want to be told.

The methodology, immediacy, transparency, and quality of this data can vary dramatically country by country.


Moscow, where most of the coronavirus cases reported in the country have been recorded, and many other regions have been in lockdown for nearly two weeks.

However, Russian officials have warned of a "huge influx" of new coronavirus infections and said that hospitals in the Moscow area were quickly nearing capacity.

On April 12, the authorities announced restrictions on Easter church services in and around the capital to contain the spread of the disease.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which will observe Easter this year on April 19, ordered churches to close their doors to large groups during the holy week leading up to the holiday.

Iran

Iran’s Health Ministry has reported 111 deaths as the result of the coronavirus pandemic in the country, bringing the total national death toll to 4,585.

The number of infected cases in the Middle East’s hardest-hit country has reached 73,303, with 1,617 new cases reported overnight, Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur said on April 13.

Jahanpur said that 3,877 of those infected with the coronavirus were in critical condition.

Many Iranian and international experts think that the real number of deaths and infections in the country could be higher than reported by Iranian officials.

Volen Siderov, the leader of the Bulgarian Attack party
Volen Siderov, the leader of the Bulgarian Attack party

Bulgaria

Bulgarian prosecutors have opened an investigation into the leader of the nationalist Attack party over comments he made urging people to violate public-health measures meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The Sofia District Prosecutor's Office said on April 13 that Volen Siderov was suspected of instigating a crime when he "repeatedly called for a breach of an order by the minister of health in connection with the pandemic of the new coronavirus."

Among other things, Siderov called on Bulgarians during a television broadcast on April 12 to ignore social-distancing measures and not wear face masks during Easter mass.

RFE/RL's Coronavirus Crisis Archive

Features and analysis, videos, and infographics explore how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the countries in our broadcast area.


Investigators also cited a press release from Attack, in which the party leader directly called on people to attend Orthodox Easter mass on April 19 to "prove that God" is stronger than the head of national operations leading the country’s response to the coronavirus epidemic.

Bulgaria has been in a state of emergency since March 13 because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. All schools, universities, kindergartens, events, and non-food shops are closed, while walking in parks is also prohibited.

As of April 12, wearing a face mask in all indoor and outdoor public places is mandatory.

Although churches remain open, authorities have strongly urged people to stay home.

Siderov, who in the past has stirred controversy over xenophobic remarks and espousal of various conspiracy theories, has downplayed the coronavirus outbreak, which has officially infected 676 people in Bulgaria and killed 31.

In mid-March, he announced on the Attack party's television station he had been involved in the development of a drug for coronavirus, and described the pandemic as "a world hysteria that was created to rearrange the world and economic order."

Attack is part of the United Patriots alliance, which is a partner in Prime Minister Boris Borisov's GERB-led government. Siderov's party has six members in parliament and has traditionally defended positions in support of Russia and against the European Union and NATO.

GERB’s press center declined to comment on the behavior of their coalition partner.

In addition to the investigation into Siderov, the Interior Ministry announced on April 13 that a probe has been launched into Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, who was seen in a photo without a mask sitting on a bench near Sofia’s Ivan Vazov National Theater with his subordinate.

The photo in question has gained traction on social media, where many users called on Karakachanov to be fined for not complying with mandatory measures.

To date, 2,780 violations have been issued by the Interior Ministry, including cases of noncompliance with quarantines and entry into parks and gardens.

Serbia

Serbian authorities have arrested the director of a state-run nursing home where a coronavirus outbreak has infected 144 people.

The man, identified by his initials M.S., was charged with both "an aggravated crime against public health" and spreading diseases, the Interior Ministry said on April 13.

Live Map: The Spread Of The Coronavirus

Updated constantly with the latest figures

The director of the Gerontology Center in the southern city of Nis is accused of "failing to take adequate measures to protect against the spread of coronavirus," police said in a statement.

As a result, 140 people who lived in the elderly center and four staff have been infected with the coronavirus, they added.

Officials said that the director allowed violations to take place, including walks outside and visits, and attempted to hide the fact that some of the people in his care were showing symptoms.

The nursing home had 256 residents and 77 staff. On April 13, it was placed under quarantine with soldiers and police officers guarding the facility, while the coronavirus patients were evacuated to the Clinical Center in Nis.

If convicted, the suspect could face up to 12 years in prison.

A total of 4,054 people in Serbia have contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, including dozens of medical staff, according to official data. The disease has so far killed 85 people.

Belarus

In his latest show of defiance, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka says nobody will die from the coronavirus in Belarus as he again rejected the need for lockdown measures to slow the spread of the virus in the country, state media reported.

"No one will die of coronavirus in our country. I publicly declare this," the BelTA state agency quoted Lukashenka as saying on April 13.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry reported 2,919 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, including 29 deaths.

But Lukashenka said the fatalities were the result of underlying health conditions in the patients, such as heart disease and diabetes.

"Therefore, I say that not a single person died purely from the coronavirus," he said.

Lukashenka's comments came two days after a World Health Organization (WHO) mission urged Belarus to do more to contain the spread of the outbreak or face a "rapid increase" in infections.

The Belarusian leader had previously derided global concerns over COVID-19 as "mass psychosis."

Lukashenka Disparages COVID-19 Victims As Belarus Curve Steepens
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In stark contrast to other European countries that have adopted strict lockdown measures to contain the pandemic, Belarus has kept its borders open and allowed soccer matches in the national league to be played in front of spectators.

Churches have also remained open ahead of Orthodox Easter on April 19.

However, the Health Ministry has encouraged citizens to reduce their social contacts.

Patrick O’Connor, head of the WHO mission in Belarus, said on April 11 that there is "evidence of a rapid increase in [infection] cases" in the country.

"Case counts have doubled about every two to three days, indicating the beginning of community transmission," O’Connor told journalists in Minsk.

Such a situation, he said, "warrants new measures."

With reporting by Reuters, TASS, IRNA, dpa, AP, and Interfax
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