Volunteers rally for elderly Russians isolated in pandemic

Anna MALPAS
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Elderly Russians will still have to pay for their shopping, but the delivery by volunteers is free

Standing outside her front door with a leather jacket pulled over her pyjamas, Alma Shayakhmetova takes a bag of groceries and medicines from volunteers.

At 67 she is in the most vulnerable age group ordered to stay at home by Moscow authorities to prevent them getting infected with the coronavirus.

A group of young Russians called Medical Volunteers -- many of them medicine students -- takes orders from the elderly over the phone, and brings them right to their door.

They still have to pay for their shopping, but the delivery is free.

For Shayakhmetova's order, the volunteers in face masks and surgical gloves went to a supermarket beside her block of flats for kefir, bread, milk, sunflower oil, bananas and flour.

They also picked up a common non-prescription heart medicine from a pharmacy.

Since Thursday, Muscovites aged over 65 or with chronic conditions are not supposed to leave their homes, a measure to last at least until April 14.

Moscow has paid them 2,000 rubles ($25) as compensation for extra expenses and promised the same payout when restrictions are lifted -- at least for those who observe them.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin also rescinded the right to free public transport for those over 65 to stop them making unnecessary journeys.

Some have criticised the measures as both draconian and stingy, particularly hitting those still working in retirement.

But Shayakhmetova said she supported them.

"It's better to be home," she said, adding she had been shocked by television footage of patients in intensive care.

"If we are all disciplined, naturally this will all be in a milder form."

Russia has reported a steady increase in coronavirus cases, with 1,264 infections and four deaths according to Friday's official tally.

Many elderly confined at home find it hard to shop at a distance: Forty percent of Russians aged over 60 don't use the Internet, according to a survey last year by state polling agency VTsIOM, which rules out online supermarkets for them.

"I was just watching television, saw the number and called," Shayakhmetova said of the volunteer service.

"We elderly wouldn't be able to manage without this project" said the retired English teacher who also cares for her elderly father.

"I don't need to go to a shop, they bring it all to me."

The campaign to help those isolated due to the coronavirus is very much a top-down initiative rather than a grassroots one.

The group is working in conjunction with the All-Russian Popular Front, which organises events and rallies for supporters of President Vladimir Putin.

The delivery service is promoted on a website called "We are together 2020," which has recruited around 9,000 volunteers across Russia and 400 in the capital.

Moscow coordinator Aliya Kochesokova is just 19 but she said the volunteer campaign as whole is "supervised by the presidential administration" and "personally by Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin)."

The trade and industry ministry has donated more than 200,000 face masks to the volunteers, who wear distinctive red waistcoats with the name of the group written on them.

Some volunteers with medical training are also helping at Kommunarka, Moscow's infectious diseases hospital.

They don hazmat suits to work in the "dirty zone" with those infected, helping medical staff, said Kochesokova.

She herself is a medical student, now attending lectures and submitting coursework online due to the pandemic.

She says volunteering is good experience for future doctors to learn about effective communication, something they often don't learn at medical school.

Fellow volunteer David Toniya, a 21-year-old dental student, said he began volunteering after hearing about the group at his university.

"With this situation that is happening in the whole world, we just decided to help," he said.