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Russian president Vladimir Putin visiting the information center monitoring the situation around the Coronavirus in Moscow, Russia and abroad. Photo (source): (CC BY 4.0)

How the East fights against the Coronavirus

Europe currently appears to be drowning in chaos and dysfunction when it comes to the fight against the Coronavirus. But how is Russia handling the challenge right now?

Published: March 23, 2020, 11:25 am

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    A new infection with a mysterious origin – Covid-19 – is not just keeping Europe in alert. Regarding the international response to the pandemic which started in China at the end of December 2019, one can only but marvel at how quickly some Western countries have changed their stances on the issue.

    The leap from “ it does not concern us” to “this is the biggest challenge in the years since World War II” (Angela Merkel) came as quickly as the international community realised that the “Chinese virus” doesn’t respect any boundaries and can spread at a daunting speed all around the world.

    For this adversity which was initially perceived as the problem of faraway Asia, it took less than couple of months to be declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). And it should have given countries a better understanding of the new virus’ scale and accompanying hazards.

    Europe was too late in evaluating the risks by not taking the virus seriously. Belated measures taken in resisting the contagion has resulted in a dramatic situation: On March 22 there were more than 144 000 infected residents of European countries. Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland, UK, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Norway – all these countries show a exponential growth of those who have tested positive for the novel Coronavirus.

    Particularly hard hit is Italy – with 53 578 infected citizens and 4 825 deaths and the victims rising daily. Meanwhile shocking videos of military convoys transporting dead bodies from Bergamo and other Lombardy towns show that mere statistics never convey the real tragedy that thousands of Italians are facing today.

    On March 20, Chinese authorities announced that for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic no new cases of infection were registered for two consecutive days. The total number of infected people equals 81 008, and this figure shows no sharp increase. China has the situation under control.

    That kind of success raises a question: how has this huge country with more than a billion people been able to stop the contagion so quickly while European countries, with far fewer residents and a much better healthcare system, are losing in the battle against the virus?

    According to experts, high mortality, to some extent, is what Europeans are paying for a democratic and free system. In Europe, people are accustomed to free activities, easy travel and independent decision-making.

    European governments moreover are concerned about public opinion: they are not used to issuing tough orders, and neither are citizens used to following them. Conversely, China acted with severity, making unpopular decisions while inflicting serious economic damage as the cost of containing this disease.

    Chinese authorities confined millions of people, forbidding them to leave their cities and even their homes, except for buying food and medical care, and imposed other restrictions, closing entire industries in the process.

    At the very least, European countries should have learned from the Chinese experience since the Middle Kingdom responded quickly enough to guarantee an effective outcome.

    In particular, Italy has now introduced tough quarantine measures, including deploying the army to patrols towns in the most dangerous epidemiologically-hit areas. However, quarantine in this country, although really severe, is apparently still violated by many.

    Alexander Dunaev, a historian and political scientist who lives in Italy, considers that quarantine measures can become more strict as Italian population still has not taken it seriously and continues to violate restrictions: “According to Lombardy’s mobile operators, who can track their customers’ movement, many in the region are moving from home for more than 300 meters. That is, they do not just leave the house, but also go for a walk unnecessarily. And Lombardy is the province where there is around 70 percent of Coronavirus victims.”

    Whilst China is overcoming the crisis caused by the new infection and European countries are trying to fight the contagion by introducing unprecedented tough restrictions, Russia finds itself between the largely stabilized East and feverish West.

    For the moment, the Russian Federation has not registered a large number of infected inhabitants – on March 22 there were officially 367 cases and only one death. A possible explanation for the relatively calm epidemiologic situation in Russia consists of both luck and complex of measures which are taken by Russian authorities.

    Already at the end of January, the land border of Russia with China was closed off, and the railway communication between two countries was stopped. Since the February 1, air traffic with China was limited, and from February 20 a ban on entry was introduced for Chinese citizens.

    In addition, restrictions on entry affected citizens of other countries where Coronavirus outbreaks were recorded.

    At the initial stage Russia was fortunate that only two natives of China infected with the Coronavirus were present on its territory. Thus, the Russian authorities have had a stock of valuable time, which is now being used to stop the spread of the infection.

    Measures implemented by Russia, aim to prevent the spread of infection, help those who need supervision and treatment and reduce the negative consequences for business. In particular, on March 20, the Russian government approved an action plan to ensure sustainable economic development.

    In addition, quarantine violations for Covid-19 were included in a list of diseases which pose a danger to others, resulting in criminal liability which could mean imprisonment for up to five years.

    Another strict decision was taken in relation to closing Russian borders to foreigners. From March 18 to May 1, 2020, the entry of foreign citizens and stateless persons into Russia has been temporarily restricted. An exception has been made for some categories of foreigners – including consular officers, international organizations, international drivers, ship crews etc.

    Russian citizens who come back from foreign countries are being monitored. A separate terminal has been allocated and prepared at the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport, where medical supervision of arrivals from countries with an unfavorable epidemiologic situation was set up. In all cases, a full range of the necessary anti-epidemic measures were implemented.

    To prevent the spread of infection in all regions of Russia, a high alert mode has been introduced. It dictates cancellation or postponement to a later date of all mass events, and the distance learning mode for schools and universities.

    Citizens are advised to refrain from traveling abroad; for arrivals from countries with adverse conditions, a mandatory 14-day quarantine has been introduced. Employers are required to prevent employees with symptoms of infectious diseases from entering their places of work.

    The number of participants in leisure activities, depending on the decision of the region authorities, has been limited to 50 or a thousand. In Moscow, an additional ban was introduced on the admission of visitors to hospitals, temperatures are taken at workplaces, in public transport, clinics, and targeted social support is also provided.

    Russian authorities consider the experience of South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong of introducing a strategy of mass testing as effective. Member of the State Duma Committee on Health Boris Mendelevich believes that Russia is in a better position since the Coronavirus began to spread there later, what gave them the opportunity to analyze how other countries were fighting it: “I reckon that evaluation of the success of some precise methodology should be considered not the number of patients, but the percentage of deaths. To date, South Korea is most successful in reducing the number of deaths from Coronavirus, in my opinion. They followed the path of mass testing – this is one of the methods for early diagnosis of the disease, which reduces the possibility of complications and reduces the number of contacts.”

    More than 163 500 detection test kits are currently available in Russia. According to the Russian Service on Surveillance for Consumer Rights Protection and Human Well-being, there are enough test kits ready.

    Also, Russia will supply these test-kits to 13 countries, including members of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States, Iran, Mongolia and the North Korea. In addition, delivery to Egypt, Serbia and Venezuela is expected.

    Russia also helped with delivering test kits to the partly recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. While the globalized world and united Europe are suffering from the border-free spread of the virus, these small republics benefited from being mostly isolated.

    Alongside well-timed prevention measures such as closing borders for foreigners and establishing a high alert regime, the results have been quite spectacular – there are still no detected Coronavirus cases in any of the above mentioned republics.

    The situation inside another Russian neighbor – Ukraine – is sadly developing differently. On March 22, there were 47 Coronavirus cases and 3 deaths. Since March 12 tough quarantine has been announced in Ukraine, but it has not prevented the spread of the infection. Some of the major problems of this state in dealing with the new virus are the lack of medical personnel and test kits which can lead to mass contagion.

    As far as food security in post-Soviet countries is concerned, there is one fascinating fact to mention. Unlike the European countries, the USA, Canada and other Western states struck with toilet-paper hysteria, post-Soviet territories are largely free from this kind of insanity. There is however a huge buckwheat shortage – it is almost impossible to find the cereal on the shelves of Russian supermarkets.

    The Russian desire to stock up on buckwheat was handed down from generation to generation – the roots of this tradition go back to time of the USSR or even earlier.

    According to psychologist Maria Liberman, buckwheat is a product of memory. The older generation remembers the famine, and these memories were inherited at the genetic level.

    “We perceive buckwheat as some kind of magical product. In Soviet times, it was given out to diabetics. Accordingly, in the human understanding, it was established that this cereal was somehow healing.

    “Buckwheat was part of the army supply, which made it appear that it had a special biochemical composition, with which soldiers did not even need meat to make up a complete diet. All this mythologized buckwheat, made it special”, Liberman explained.

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