MOSCOW – Russian authorities have arrested the leader of an independent medical union, an outspoken critic of the Kremlin, who dismissed the country’s low official coronavirus infection numbers as a “lie”.
Anastasia Vasilieva, head of the Alliance of Doctors, was stopped by the police on Thursday and detained overnight as she traveled from Moscow to an impoverished rural town to deliver masks, gloves, and other supplies to a local hospital, a colleague, who traveled with her said.
The arrest of Dr. Vasilieva, an ophthalmologist who has been extremely critical of Russia̵
Maria Bakhldina, the head of the hospital, dismissed the doctors’ complaints in conversation with Fontanka, a news website in the city, as “untrue”.
The views on how far the virus has really spread in Russia and how well prepared the country is have been largely determined by political bias. The general public, which mainly supports President Vladimir V. Putin, has expressed little concern, while many opponents of the Kremlin suspect a cover-up.
Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, recently accused the authorities of lying about the number of tests carried out, and suggested that the number of cases could consequently be much higher than reported.
Russia has intensified the tests and claims to have carried out more than 575,000 tests. However, this includes cases of multiple tests on the same person, which reduces the number of employees.
In a speech to the nation on Thursday, President Putin, He has holed up in his country home outside Moscow for most of the past week, praising health workers for “keeping the line of defense against the advancing epidemic,” but acknowledged that the worst is yet to come.
Russia has been far more open to fighting the pandemic than many other former Soviet countries, some of whom insist that they currently have no cases and can keep the virus at bay with quacks.
A sudden big surge in cases would likely break Russia’s rickety medical system and undermining Putin’s already declining but still robust approval ratings, especially as state-controlled media have been bombarding the public for months with gushing reports of how the president is improving healthcare across the country.
The virus has also slowed down Russia’s already weak economy and, less than a month after constitutional changes were implemented, posed another problem for the Kremlin to allow Putin to waive term limits and remain in power until 2036.
Dr. Vasilieva, the detained doctor, founded the Alliance of Doctors last year to counter the Kremlin’s claims of dramatic improvements in funding and other hospital support. She treated Mr. Navalny as a patient and connected her group to his. The authorities arrested her last year for speaking out against the closure of a tuberculosis clinic in a poor region of southern Russia.
According to a recent survey by the Levada Center, a well-respected Russian electoral organization, Putin’s approval rate fell from 69 percent in February to 63 percent in March, almost as high as in 2014 before the popularity of the president after Russia increased the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine .
On his last public outing early last week, Mr. Putin visited a new, state-of-the-art infectious disease center, Hospital No. 40 in Moscow, accompanied by his chief doctor, who tested positive for the virus this week. The Kremlin said that Mr. Putin was tested regularly and that “everything is fine”.
Russia reported 601 new infections on Friday, compared to 771 new infections on Thursday, which corresponds to a total of 4,419. This is a fourfold increase over the past week, but still far less than the more than 245,000 cases reported in the US and nearly 118,000 in Spain and 115,000 in Italy.
Critics of the Kremlin, however, have questioned the official figures. Dr. Vasilieva, the head of the detained medical union, said in a video at the end of last month that the authorities had lied about the actual number of infections and accused them of deliberately misclassifying people who developed the disease as victims of normal pneumonia.
A few days later, she said she had been asked to comment on her comments and defiantly explained in another video: “You can send whoever you want – the Federal Security Service, the fire department – but the truth will not change. “The actual number of coronavirus cases is” much higher than the authorities say “. It provided no evidence of a cover-up.
Their union of medical workers, who warned that there is an urgent need for masks and other protective equipment in Russian hospitals, recently launched an online fundraiser to raise funds from the public and buy supplies for hospitals and clinics.
The government also appears to be concerned that it may need to do more to control the virus. The last remaining flights to the country were suspended on Friday, and even special flights that brought Russians home from abroad were suspended, the Interfax news agency reported. All land borders have already been closed.
Moscow, St. Petersburg and many Russian regions have ordered residents this week to leave their homes just to buy food and medicine, or to walk their dogs near where they live.
Dr. Vasilieva was stopped by police on Thursday when they tried to deliver car deliveries to a hospital in Okulovka, northwest of Moscow, according to a colleague, Natalia Kolosova, who traveled with her. “They were clearly waiting for us,” said Ms. Kolosova, noting that police officers had set up a checkpoint at the Okulovka entrance, but no other vehicles stopped.
Dr. Vasilieva appeared in court on Friday for violating police orders and violating quarantine restrictions. She was released on Friday evening after being sentenced to a small fine.
Natalia Zviagina, director of Amnesty International in Russia, condemned the detention and said in a statement: “It is surprising that the Russian authorities seem to fear criticism more than the deadly Covid-19 pandemic” caused by the coronavirus. Through the arrest of Dr. Vasilieva, she added, shows the authorities “that they are ready to punish health professionals who dare to contradict the official Russian narrative and uncover shortcomings in the public health system.”
Dmitri Sokolov, medic in Okulovka Hospital and head of the regional department of Dr. Vasilieva Medical Alliance said the hospital has not yet admitted patients who have been confirmed to have Covid-19, but employees are deeply concerned about a severe lack of masks and other equipment.
Chief surgeon of Okulovka hospital, Yuri I. Korvin, also a critic of the authorities, was instructed to stay away from the hospital for two weeks and isolate himself because of his contact with Dr. Vasilieva had said Sokolov. However, police officers who were involved in her detention were allowed to continue working, he added.
Mr. Sokolov said, “Nobody knows the actual number of infections,” adding that Okulovka residents have been alarmed by the recent flood of people from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Fleeing quarantine restrictions and high infection rates in their hometowns, city dwellers have fled to rural towns like Okulovka to seek protection in country houses.
“None of us know where these people have been or whether they have been tested,” he said.
Oleg Matsnev contributed to the reporting.