Wary of official virus claims, Russians brace for worst

Thibaut MARCHAND
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Russia reacted quickly in late January closing its Chinese border

While President Vladimir Putin has reassured the public that the virus pandemic is under control, many Russians instinctively distrust the official claims and fear the true situation is much worse.

They look back to past disasters, from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear explosion to 2010's forest fires, when the initial official reaction was to cover up the truth.

Russia reacted quickly in late January as the epidemic raged in China, closing its border that runs for 4,200-kilometres (2,600 miles) and banning entry to most Chinese citizens.

As late as March 6, Russia had only 10 confirmed cases. But the numbers then began rising swiftly. By Thursday, the total was 199 across 23 regions.

Health officials on Thursday also announced the first death of a Russian with COVID-19, attributing it first to pneumonia and then a blood clot.

Putin has been upbeat on Russia's situation, saying this week it "looks a lot better" than in other European countries and is "generally under control".

From Wednesday, Russia closed its borders to foreigners and Russians entering from any foreign country must now self-isolate. All schools will close for three weeks from Monday.

Moscow, the largest city with the highest number of cases, and a few other cities have also limited the size of public gatherings.

But most Russians are not facing drastic changes to their way of life yet and the government is seeking to reassure the public.

"There is no reason for panic... We will deal with this threat," Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin told a government meeting on Thursday.

He urged Russians to behave responsibly and "limit their contacts with others as much as possible".

- Empty shelves -

Nevertheless, public anxiety is mounting. Since the start of the week, images of empty supermarket shelves have circulated on social media and many people have retreated to their dachas, traditional summer houses in the countryside.

In the second largest city of Saint Petersburg, around 4,000 people asked to be tested for the virus in just one day, deputy governor Oleg Ergashev said on Thursday, but broad testing of those not at high risk is not currently being carried out.

"I'm not afraid of this epidemic but I've bought two packs of buckwheat. It's our mentality to distrust what they're saying on television," said 47-year-old Svetlana Andropova, a customer at a supermarket in Saint Petersburg, stocking up on a traditional staple food.

Supermarkets have told AFP there is some evidence that people are stocking up on goods.

- Conflicting figures -

Many question the official number of confirmed cases and believe it is an underestimate.

Anastasia Vasilyeva, president of an independent trade union called the Doctors' Alliance and an ally of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, claims the health officials are hiding cases by recording them as pneumonia or severe respiratory infections.

Figures for pneumonia are conflicting -- national officials say the rate in Moscow has increased year-on-year, while city agencies suggest it has declined, and the health minister has focused on an apparently declining death rate.

The Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper has also cast doubt on the reliability of Russia's virus testing, suggesting the kits are less sensitive than in other countries.

Sergei, a 29-year-old sports journalist emerging from a Moscow supermarket with two bags of food, commented that "living in Russia forces you to think for yourself first of all, try to analyse information from different sources".

Rumours about the virus are circulating quickly and Putin has urged Russians not to believe "fake stories". A centre set up to monitor the crisis is working to identify clusters of false reports on social media and remove them.

On Tuesday, a report that Moscow would shortly be placed in a state of emergency with a nightly curfew circulated widely before being denied.

Russians have responded with typical black humour to the doubts over official accounts.

"As soon as it crosses the Russian border, coronavirus turns into seasonal flu," runs one popular joke.