THE CORONAVIRUS, HEALTHCARE & POLITICS IN MY TWO WORLDS

I have been working on another blog to follow up on my last one about Putin’s speech and Russia’s proposed Constitutional changes. Quite a number of people have written, however, asking me about the coronavirus situation in Russia and how it has impacted life here where we live. So I will put the other blog on hold and give some observations on things here in Russia. Clearly, the situation is changing rapidly worldwide with COVID-19, so this is just a “snapshot” of what it is like here now. Obviously the description and numbers I give today could be completely outdated by the time I publish the blog. Also, I found different organizations actually give different numbers. For better or worse I relied on the WHO and the CDC. Despite discrepancies in the numbers, I think they are accurate enough to get an idea of the situation.

I will also include how our family faced a medical emergency this week, although it was not related to the coronavirus. It may give readers an even better idea of life here. Then I’ll conclude with some observations of the politics involved (okay, a bit of a political rant) in my home country.

Some opinions I’ll keep to myself. I’m not going to debate 1) the origins of the virus. I have my suspicions this was man-made, but I can’t prove it and don’t have enough information yet. 2) Neither can I give an informed analysis or prediction on the future severity of the viral crisis. I have noticed that different experts with equal qualifications disagree among themselves. I’m giving my “worm’s eye” perspective on the situation from my location in small town Russia.

We have the saying, “Hindsight is 20/20,” so all world leaders probably would do things differently in retrospect. Nevertheless, the World Health Organization representative to Russia said this week that Russia had prepared for and responded well to the COVID-19 crisis. https://tass.com/world/1132161 On Wednesday, March 18 he said Russia had complied with all WHO recommendations, and the number of beds and instruments for treatment were acceptable. In Russia 116,061 tests for COVID-19 had been administered. As of that date Russia had 147 confirmed cases and no deaths. Of the 147 cases, 86 were in the city of Moscow and 12 more were in the Moscow Oblast. The next highest number was in St. Petersburg with 9 cases. No other region had more than 5. So it is scattered throughout the country except for the concentration in Moscow. So I’m sure that my observations are quite different from someone living in the Russian capital.

Nevertheless, even 98 cases for a city and region of 20 million people is quite small compared to what I’m seeing in other countries. The worldwide figures I found vary. The latest I saw for March 18 according to WHO were 191,127 cases with 7,807 deaths. The number of those tested in the U.S. was 82,571. The number of confirmed cases in the U.S. according to the CDC web-site on March 18 was 7,038 with 97 deaths. Another more recent report I read said the figures on March 19 were 8,131 people in the U.S. tested positive for COVID-19 and 132 had died from it. America has well over twice the number of people that Russia does, but Russia has tested far more people than has the U.S. It has substantially fewer cases and, most importantly, no deaths as of yet.

Caveat: After writing this on March 18, I checked the latest figures on March 20. Russia’s number of cases increased to 199, and there was one death. The U.S. number went up dramatically to 14,250 with 205 deaths according to a FOXNEWS report. Of course most people who get the virus recover from it. I just could not find consistent figures on recovering rates in the stats I examined.

The reasons given for Russia’s comparably low count vary. As I expected, some see some sort of nefarious Russian conspiracy (of various sorts) at work. According to more than one report, Russia is actually using the virus to control the West. I will not be able to convince those Russian-haters of anything different, so I won’t even try. Their minds are made up, and I do not wish to confuse them with facts. It has to be so emotionally comforting for them to be able to blame all problems on Russia.

I knew that Russia had to have taken some proactive steps. Russia has a huge number of Chinese tourists. The last time I stayed in St. Petersburg for any length of time was when I took my Russian language immersion course. On the afternoon my teacher and I visited The Hermitage we could not see all we wanted because there were so many Chinese tourists groups present. The place was packed with people speaking Chinese. So given the huge numbers of Chinese people who come to Russia, it was surprising to me that the number of Russia’s COVID-19 cases was so low if China was, in fact, the source.

The more reasonable explanations I have read focus on the fact that compared to other countries Russia reacted fast in closing off travel from China. They started screening those coming in from China on the same day that China announced the presence of COVID-19 there. Then Russia also responded quickly to the news from Italy. Russia is bordered by 14 countries, compared to the continental U.S., which is bordered by two. Thus, I think from the beginning Russia knew it had to be diligent and watchful.

Second, Russia did not struggle with getting COVID-19 testing in place like in the U.S. I do not know all the reasons the United States essentially fumbled the ball on early testing. The response there seemed cumbersome and uncertain. From reading the news here it seems those in power were more concerned with propping up the stock market than getting proper testing for the virus in place. Trillions of dollars went to the Federal Reserve in a futile and losing attempt to stop loses on the stock exchange. Only later, after heavy criticism, did they focus on and fund COVID-19 testing.

It was different in Russia. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin authorized $4.05 billion dollars to be released to cover costs of responding to the virus. This money covered not only the costs of things like the tests needed, supplies to hospitals, etc., but pay to those who needed to self-quarantine. Knowing they would be paid, in my opinion, made it more likely that people would accept the quarantines.

Life here in Luga has remained much the same. People are cautious, but they are not in a frenzy. I have continued my walks around town, and the same number of people and the same number of cars are on the streets according to my unofficial survey. I have not seen anyone wearing a mask. We stopped in a few stores Sunday afternoon to pick up some things and the atmosphere was the same as usual. However, today a friend said he had to go to three stores to find sugar and salt. It is unclear if that is caused by people “stocking up” because of that virus. People are still going to restaurants, church and getting together with friends.

I have heard there was hoarding and some frenzy in Moscow, but nothing on that level here yet. Some schools have closed, or they at least allowed attendance to be voluntary, and others are still open. My English students tell me that their schools had programs on how to prevent the virus from spreading. The rumor is that the schools will alter the scheduling or may schedule spring break early. Nothing definite as of yet. Our older son is in college in St. Petersburg. It looks like they will go to on-line studies. I think this is pretty common in the big cities in Russia. They’re very strict on who is allowed to visit in the hospitals. My son was in the hospital this week (more on that below), and my wife said the authorities there were extremely cautious. They were questioning all visitors, taking their temperature, as well as requiring masks and application of sanitizer.

Yet, as I said, compared to the frenzy I see in the videos from friends in America, life here seems relatively calm. I can think of two possible reasons for the different reactions from the people: First, the number of cases here is so much lower than in America. Again, today the U.S. has 14,250 while Russia has 199. Second, most people in Russia remember the 90s. It was a different scenario than a health scare to be sure, but the stores ran out of EVERYTHING—not just toilet paper. They learned that frenzy really does not help. I think some mistake Russian passivity for carelessness. Russians’ stoic spirit in the face of a potential crisis is something born of Russia’s tumultuous history. Most people here know what it is like to do without things. In general, most Americans don’t. It scares Americans to think they won’t have all they usually have.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH RUSSIAN HEALTHCARE. In the midst of this coronavirus situation, our family had our own medical crisis unrelated to the virus. Our 11 year old son Gabriel has been struggling with pain and a general sense of malaise for some time. We thought at first it was the stress of being in a really difficult school year. Eventually the pain in his back and abdomen became worse. Last week I told Oksana to take him to the doctor and tell them to get to the bottom of the problem. They had been treating the symptoms, but the problem kept returning. So they did a number of tests and said he had small kidney stones, too small even to be seen on the ultrasound they had taken earlier. They also found blood and infection in his urine. Monday they sent him to a pediatric diagnostician in St. Petersburg. They did tests on him at the clinic there and immediately sent him by ambulance to the childrens hospital. They said he had a stone lodged in his ureter between the kidney and bladder. They admitted him and told Oksana they had to resolve this or the kidney would be enveloped in urine. Only one kidney was functioning, but urine was backing up as a result of the stone blockage on the other side. We felt overwhelmed! We did a lot of praying.

The next morning the doctor called Oksana and said their tests that morning showed no stones and no blood in the urine. The doctor was so shocked she called in 3 different specialists to do their own testing. Then later she called in one more. They all did their own tests and said the same thing. Our doctor said she had no explanation. We believe the explanation is divine intervention and prayer. Of course, it’s an old scenario. They doctor thinks there is a scientific explanation, but she just can’t find it. Or maybe it was just a coincidence. Believing family and friends see it otherwise. To paraphrase William Temple, “Coincidences happen more frequently when I pray.”

The doctor talked to her boss, and he said to put Gabriel on a 24 hour watch. Measure his liquid intake and measure the output of his urine. They would compare input and output to check kidney function. She said they would also send the urine for a breakdown of content. This is not a test for blood or infection. It is for a chemical breakdown of what his body is producing. Is there something in his body’s urine that tends to create these stones? She gave Oksana guidelines for a change in diet. We believe that they were very thorough in treating Gabriel.

After that 24 hour period they let him come home. All the tests results are now back and normal, his kidneys are functioning fine, and there is still no blood or infection. We received the statement:

–Ambulance transport to the hospital

–Emergency room stay for 3 hours for testing

–X-ray

–4 ultrasounds (each done by a different specialist)

–blood tests/evaluations

–urinalyses (didn’t list how many, but it was several)

–4 specialist consults

–attending physician

–4 day stay in hospital

TOTAL: NO CHARGE

Gabriel is a Russian citizen, so he is eligible for free healthcare. But anyone in an emergency situation in Russia gets free healthcare even if they are here on a visa. Healthcare in Russia is not seen as something to be exploited for profit. It is enough to worry about health without the financial stress.

With the insurance I had in America, we would have been in debt for years. I frequently see posts condemning socialism (usually implying I am one), and some lecture me that Russia is still socialist. They tell me Russia doesn’t charge for healthcare because it is socialist. I am not a socialist. Russia is not a socialist country.

I regard capitalism and socialism as theoretical polarities. In truth, based on my experience, both Russia and the U.S. have a mix. For example, we live on my social security check. In addition to regular income taxes, the U.S. Government started taking money out of my pay from the time I started working at 16 years old. They decided how much they would take to be placed in a government fund. I had no voice in it. They kept the money until I reached the age the government determined I could start withdrawing the money. They also decided what my monthly pay would be. I had no say in any of this. What part of that is capitalism? The government takes what it wants when it wants, puts it where it wants, and gives it back many years later at a rate it determines. That doesn’t mean America is a socialist country, but what I just described is not rooted in capitalism.

Americans and Russians are both taxed by their governments, of course. The largest amount of U.S. tax dollars by far goes for “defense ” That covers a lot. Much of the money goes to funding wars, like the one now in Afghanistan that has been going on for 18 years. As I have pointed out, the “Afghanistan papers” showed that even generals were not sure how to determine who was ally and who was enemy. They confessed they had no idea what the mission was or what “victory” would look like. Trillions of tax dollars have been spent there.

The “defense” money also goes to build and fund U.S. 800 military bases outside the United States. Do we have that many “existential threats”? Some large numbers of troops are in countries we went into during conflict years ago. The U.S. military moved into Germany after WWII, but why are we still there? Who are we protecting? South Korea is much stronger than North Korea in many ways, but our troops are still in South Korea. I have never heard any rational explanation given to the budget committee as to why the U.S. must fund 800 bases outside U.S. territory. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone on the committee ask.

More than 200 countries receive foreign aid from U.S. tax dollars. Afghanistan receives $5 billion from the U.S. in foreign aid, not counting what we spend on our military there. Israel officially gets $2 million. (It’s way more than that. See “The Israel Lobby,” by Walt and Mearsheimer.) Supposedly that is for their defense, even though they have more conventional and nuclear weapons than any of their supposed opponents (most of whom have no nuclear weapons), and their economy is doing fine. Egypt and Iraq get $1.3 billion each. Those are just the top recipients—out of 200.

What many politicians from both parties tell us is that if the U.S. Government pays for our healthcare from our tax dollars, it is socialism. But if they send our tax dollars all over the world, then it is free enterprise making the world safe. Living in Russia has helped me to realize the convoluted logic of that way of thinking. Russia is not socialist; Russian leaders simply decided the health of the citizens comes before putting out conflicts and building military bases all over the globe. Yet, despite all the evidence, Putin’s Russia is still described as the world’s aggressor in much of the Western Press.

I included the personal part on my son in the hospital to make a point. In America I saw good, generous, hard-working people labor under the burdens of heavy taxes and healthcare costs beyond their ability to pay. Polls show 40% of Americans could not afford a trip to the emergency room that cost $400. I can tell you from experience, a simple trip to the emergency room will cost you a lot more than $400. In my opinion, it is not socialism to spend tax money on your own citizens. It is not socialism to put the health of your people at a higher priority than political conflicts around the world. It amazes and saddens me that the same political leaders in the U.S. who complain so loudly, without any actual evidence, about how awful it is that Russia interfered in our election, vote to spend so much of America’s money interfering in the lives and leadership of countries all over the world.

In a worst case scenario, the health of many individuals around the world could be destroyed by this virus. Sadly, it is possible that many nations will face dire economic and health crises like they have not experienced in a very long time. It would be no small comfort if, as a result, the American people would be allowed more input in how their tax dollars are spent. Maybe Americans would start getting “no charge” notes for their healthcare like the one we received here.

I have no idea how this coronavirus crisis will develop. I do feel safer riding out the storm here in Luga, Russia than in Greer, S.C. I hope when the dust settles on COVID-19 some difficult decisions will be made to change the priorities of my government that can’t seem to hear the cries of its people.