Editor's note: On April 2, Anastasia Vasilyeva and colleagues from the Alliance of Doctors union were detained by authorities in the Novgorod region of western Russia while delivering medical equipment to a local hospital. Video shows Vasiliyeva being dragged by police officers into a police station. According to Amnesty International, Vasilyeva "was reportedly choked and hit in the abdomen and passed out as a result." She will reportedly face trial on charges of “disobeying a police officer.” Vasilyeva has been outspoken in her criticism of the Russian response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Russia has relatively few reported cases of COVID-19 compared with other nations — less than 500 confirmed cases for a population around 144.5 million.
However, many in Russia are starting to doubt the government’s numbers. Some have claimed Russia has been underreporting the instances of the novel coronavirus and has been classifying cases as pneumonia.
“You see that now in our country, we have [a] real increase of pneumonia cases. [The] government changed a lot of hospitals into hospitals where only pneumonia cases are [being treated]. In Moscow, now we have about 15 hospitals that are changed to treat pneumonia. And three hospitals where coronavirus is treated," Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva said. “Really we can associate increase of pneumonia cases with the [pandemic] of coronavirus all over the world. So our test is not really very good. We have not enough tests. We have not good diagnostics to understand which pneumonia cases [are] not coronavirus, which [are] the real coronavirus."
Vasilyeva, the head of Russia's Alliance of Doctors trade union, says the Russian health care system is woefully underprepared to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Medical staff lack the necessary equipment, and rural areas lack necessary medical staff. Vasilyeva spoke with The World's Marco Werman about Russia's response to COVID-19.
Marco Werman: So, Dr. Vasilyeva, to be clear, you believe that there are many more cases of COVID-19 than the ones reported — that many of those pneumonia cases may actually be COVID-19 cases? Is that what you're saying?
Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva: So I can only suppose. I can only suppose, because how can we have increased pneumonia without increase of coronavirus all over the world? So, of course, I think that the quantity of patients with coronavirus is much higher than the government says.
You put out a video about this, as well as the conditions that Russian health workers are working under right now. Are the health professionals in Russia and is a Russian health system prepared to take on this virus?
Our country's really very big and we have not enough roads. And for coronavirus, it's a very bad way to spread. This can protect, in some way, our people from coronavirus, and the speed of coronavirus spread, I think, will be much less than in Europe.
You're saying basically Russia is geographically predisposed to fighting this virus because everything is so spread out.
So we have no roads. How can a coronavirus travel between towns and cities and villages without roads, without transport? So in Russia, to move from point A to point B — it sometimes is very difficult.
Of course, that doesn't mean that coronavirus will not spread at all. In Russia, there are still flights.
Of course it will spread, but not in such quick way as in China and Europe. And also, you see that this disease is really dangerous for older people. But our older people have no money to travel. They're sitting [at] home. They're sitting there in villages, and they are very poor. This fact can protect our older people from quick spread of this disease. But our health system is also very poor. So we have not enough hospitals, not enough medical staff. We have no fabrics to provide masks, protection costumes, and so on.
So what measures has Russia taken so far in limiting the spread of the coronavirus?
So you see that now the borders are closed. The schools are closed. The universities are closed. But the metro underground transport is open. For me, it's a great surprise. And I think that it's the most dangerous source for spreading this infection.
Dr. Vasilyeva, you're the head of the Alliance of Doctors trade union in Russia. What do you need from the government to help contain this? What do you think Russia should be doing right now?
So, of course, Russia should protect doctors. The government should equip every medical worker with protection, with masks, costumes and so on. It's very important. Every medical worker who goes for a walk and goes to the hospital and back home is really spreading this infection — in the transport, in the metro, in the streets, everywhere. So the medical workers should be well-equipped.
And you're saying today Russia is not prepared for that?
Of course. [In] some towns there is only one medical worker ... only one. He or she is working for four people. So it's very difficult to work, even now without any pandemic.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Follow The World's COVID-19 coverage here.