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Still Working After All These Fears: Russian Clerks, Couriers Remain On The Job As COVID-19 Crisis Unfurls

A driver from the ride-sharing service sits inside his car in Moscow on March 26. One driver said he and his colleagues have been encouraged to disinfect the interiors of their vehicles but that there have been no instructions on how often the cars should be disinfected, and no one is checking to see that it is done at all.

MOSCOW – Authorities in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar – like their counterparts across the country – have urged nonessential workers to remain at home in order to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone is urged to practice social distancing: refrain from gatherings and stay at least 2 meters from one another.

But Anna, who works as a clerk at a grocery store in the Magnit chain, says you’d never know it by watching her customers.

She routinely sees people who have just purchased antibacterial soaps and wipes from her standing around in groups on city streets or lingering on public benches.

“It is hard for me to work, not so much because our managers aren’t taking steps to keep us healthy but because our customers are not taking this virus seriously,” she told RFE/RL. “They hold out their hands to get their change…and they lean in closely when they have a question. I’ve seen a man who just asked me where to find the antiseptics then lick his fingers to open a plastic bag.”

Like all the workers interviewed for this story, Anna’s name has been changed out of concern of retaliation by her employer.

Staying In, Leaning In

In a televised address on March 25, President Vladimir Putin urged nonessential workers across the country to remain at home next week.

“The health, lives, and safety of the people is an absolute priority for us,” Putin said.

Russia’s official coronavirus case count rose above 1,250 on March 28, with four fatalities recorded. Many observers suspect those numbers may not reflect that true situation in the country of some 144 million people.

But Ksenia, who works as a courier for the Yandex.eda food-delivery service in St. Petersburg, also worries about becoming infected because of the carelessness of her customers, despite delivery protocols imposed by her employer.

“We aren’t supposed to have contact with the client or approach anywhere near them,” Ksenia told RFE/RL. “But people don’t always understand and try to come closer with some question or whatever."

She says her employer has not given her any equipment or disinfecting agents. Couriers have been ordered to take their temperature before each shift and report any fevers, but there are no controls to make sure this is done.

Yandex is the only major Russian company that has announced a plan to provide financial support to drivers and couriers who become infected with the coronavirus or need treatment for COVID-19.

Daniyar works as a driver for in Moscow. He reports that business has dropped precipitously as many of the blue-collar workers who comprise his usual clientele switch to working from home. He told RFE/RL that drivers have been encouraged to disinfect the interiors of their vehicles and have been given an 80 percent discount at one car wash. However, there have been no instructions on how often the cars should be disinfected, and no one is checking to see that it is done at all.

Coronavirus Denial

Diana, who works as a cashier at one of the Perekryostok grocery stores in Moscow, tells a more alarming story.

“Our store managers bought masks, gloves, and antiseptic cleansers in connection with the coronavirus,” she said. “They give us the masks and gloves every day, but the disinfectants are just set up next to each cash register in case there is an inspection. But they won’t let us use them.”

But she is not worried about becoming infected because, as she said, “I am not convinced the virus even exists.”

“But even if it does exist, I think it is foreordained when each person will fall sick and what they will die from,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you wear a mask or wash with antiseptics. If it is fated to happen, it will happen.”

Health authorities around the world are fighting against such attitudes, working to explain that the coronavirus is highly contagious and often fatal. According to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, there have been more than 602,000 confirmed infections globally and almost 28,000 deaths as of March 28.

However, proper hygiene, social distancing, the use of masks and gloves, and other measures have proven effective at slowing the transmission of the virus and preventing health-care systems from being overwhelmed.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from Moscow by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Karina Merkuryeva