Coronavirus: Russia resists lockdown and pins hopes on vaccine

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The ticket booths at Krylatskoye ice palace are shuttered, but the rink is full: not of speed skaters and hockey players, but rows of coronavirus patients.

It’s one of five facilities in Moscow transformed into giant temporary hospitals that are now swinging into action as the number of new Covid cases reaches daily record highs.

The Kremlin describes the rate of infection as “worrying” – close to 21,000 new cases were announced across Russia on Tuesday – and it admits that healthcare facilities in some regions are “overloaded”.

But it is still resisting a national lockdown, anxious to protect the economy and optimistic that Russia’s contender for a Covid-19 vaccine can help chart a way out of this crisis.

The ice has gone for now, but the ice palace hospital is equipped with the latest digital technology and the chief doctor is insistently upbeat.

Patients in Moscow hospital

“Every day we admit between 40 and 50 patients, but we also discharge the same amount,” Andrei Shkoda told, beneath a giant screen that once displayed figure-skating scores: last winter, before Covid.

This year it’s showing films from Soviet classics to Mr Bean for the sick to watch from their beds.

The field hospital was built in a month during the first surge in Covid cases and never used. Now, a quick scan from the spectator stands shows that around one third of its 1,347 beds are full.

Critical role of field hospitals

The spare capacity is in stark contrast with some of Russia’s regions where even state TV is now reporting on provincial hospitals, stretched at the best of times, full to overflowing. The same is true of some morgues.

Moscow still has the highest number of new cases and there are periodic queues of ambulances at city clinics, long waits for free Covid tests or for doctors to make house calls.

But the field hospitals, staffed partly by medics from the regions, are playing a critical role, not least in allowing regular hospitals to continue planned healthcare.

Dr Shkoda says Covid patients in this autumn’s spike in cases are noticeably younger and also sicker, after treating themselves at home.

“In spring, everyone was afraid, so they came for help sooner. This new wave is probably because many people stopped taking precautions,” he believes.

Medics in protective gear

If so, it was Russia’s politicians who set the tone.

Masks now mandatory in public

This summer they hailed a ‘”victory” over the virus, trying to lift the mood ahead of a constitutional reform vote that handed Vladimir Putin a way to stay in power.

Social life here in the capital promptly burst back into life, barely a mask to be seen.

Re-imposing unpopular restrictions, now that infections are rising again, isn’t so easy.

Russia’s health watchdog recently made face coverings mandatory in all public spaces, enforced with fines, but most other anti-virus measures are left up to regional governors.

In Moscow that means 30% of office staff working remotely, the elderly and vulnerable advised to stay home and high-school children studying online.

Is mass vaccine programme imminent?

This weekend the city’s mayor conceded that the infection rate hadn’t stabilised as he had hoped. But instead of a lockdown, there’s a lot of talk about Sputnik V, one of several Russian Covid-19 vaccines in development.

When Pfizer announced on Monday that its own vaccine was more than 90% effective, Russia’s health ministry immediately declared the same for Sputnik, although it’s still in the midst of mass trials.

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