My last blog was written during the early stage of the coronavirus crisis. Since it continues to dominate the news and since I have received several inquiries from America on how it is here, I decided to give an update. I’ll discuss the differences in numbers between Russia and America and offer some reflections on the differences. Then I’ll give some details on life in this part of Russia during the crisis. Again, it is a “worm’s eye view” based primarily on what I see and read here in this part of Russia and what my contacts from America send or tell me. I am quite sure if I lived in, say, Moscow this blog would be very different.
THE STATS. First, before getting into the actual statistics, etc., I want to point out that while the tests used in America and Russia are similar, the two countries gather the raw data based on different criteria. America, like many countries, tests only individuals who show clear symptoms of the virus. If a person shows no symptoms or only general symptoms, they do not get tested. I suspect this is because the numbers they were predicting early on in the U.S. seemed overwhelming. Russia includes persons who are asymptomatic in their tests. In Russia if a person tests positive for CV, then they try to test persons in that family and any persons with whom the virus carrier has been in close contact whether they show symptoms or not.
Also, if you want a COVID test in Russia you can go to certain clinics and get one. The health care authorities here do not decide who can or cannot get the test as they do in America. Oksana had to get a test because she needed a certification that she was negative. It was back when she needed to visit the hospital in St. Petersburg. She could have gone to the state-funded polyclinic here in Luga and be tested for free. They send all the swabs they take here to a lab in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately that lab is so overwhelmed with all the tests they have to do daily, they do not provide certification if you are negative. They only get in touch with you if you tested positive. She was in St. Petersburg and needed the test done pronto and, if negative, a statement of verification. She found another clinic that would come out to the apartment we rent there and test her for $67.00.The results were negative, and she got the statement she needed by email a few days later. This certainly would not have been possible in America. Again, America limits who gets tested to those with very noticeable symptoms.
The numbers listed on worldometers.info for Russia include tests done on people who are asymptomatic. In Russia I first heard that 60% of those who had tested positive for the virus never showed symptoms of having it, and 30% showed only minor symptoms, like having a cold. Now I have read the statistics are showing that that percentage is increasing. Many people test positive for the virus, then later test negative when their immune systems get rid of the virus. They are listed as “recovered,” even though they were never actually sick. Clearly there are asymptomatic people in America who have the virus but are never tested. So although the posted records indicate that the U.S. has far more cases of CV than Russia, the actual difference in numbers between the two countries is even greater than what is indicated.
On the other hand, I don’t think anyone doubts that America has overstated the number of deaths from COVID-19. The cause of death is listed as COVID-19 even when there may be more serious comorbidities present. For example, here is a very short video of a press announcement by Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Director of Public Health for the state of Illinois, explaining that no matter what the actual cause of death is, when a person dies who tested CV positive the cause of death is listed as COVID-19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4i3Krs5aL0&fbclid=IwAR3zdrqnVIgxnRtrgWlA-FVleT2td9KK0JSosv_V8ROcMoxB8BroSq4Q0so
Now I will discuss the actual numbers. As with my last blog, these numbers are a “snapshot.” Obviously they change daily, and some figures are dated. I kept updating my numbers, but finally decided I just have to stop and list what I found.
On the day that I did my research the US had 855,492 active cases of CV, whereas Russia had 93,806. Clearly a difference of 761,686 is very significant. The U.S. list total deaths resulting from CV 61,699, while deaths in Russia are at 1,073. Obviously the virus has had a far greater impact on the U.S. than Russia. Since the differences are so striking, there are those who claim Russia is cheating with its figures. They offer no evidence, but journalists and politicians in the West rarely feel they need to gather evidence to make charges of any kind against Russia. You can’t argue the evidence with them because those who make the charges present no evidence. The population of America is much higher than Russia, so that is one factor. Still, factoring in for the population difference does not come close to explaining the current disparity between the two countries. Why are the rates so much lower in Russia than America?
I certainly do not claim to have the definitive answer. I suspect there are a number of factors, and I personally believe it will be a long time before we know the full story on what has been going on with this virus. Several things are amiss. All I want to do here is to note the differences as I watched the news in both countries daily. It seemed to me that the leadership here in Russia was far more focused on and united in what steps to take against the virus from the beginning. From the newscasts I watched of the meetings in Russia, the discussions were rational and non-combative. I did not observe anyone that I thought was trying to grandstand or make “political points.” Input was given by a number of individuals with expertise in various areas. The areas of responsibility were clearly delineated by President Putin. Everyone was on the proverbial “same page.”
In the U.S., I personally think the polarization that has existed in Washington since Trump’s election hindered an efficient early response to the virus. The divisions there run deep. Further, Trump was impeached on December 18, 2019 and was not acquitted until Feb. 5, 2020. China made their announcement about the virus on December 31, but the focus in America was clearly elsewhere throughout January. This isn’t to say no one did anything about it in America or the nation was not aware of it. I’m saying that when I turned on the news from America I heard both sides ranting about whether Trump should be impeached or not. The Senate trial was where the “political energy” was being spent and the national interest was being focused during a crucial time.
I have friends who blame Trump for the bad start, and I am seeing politicians do the same thing. I’m no Trump apologist. I think he has terrible advisers both on foreign and domestic issues. I also think he often expresses himself in an adolescent manner which antagonizes his opponents, but does not solve problems. Nevertheless, he was blasted as a racist when he first said we must close down the borders with China. Now they are saying he should have done it sooner. Go look at videos of what Nancy Pelosi and Andrew Cuomo said when news of the virus hit. They assured people it was great to get out and attend parades and other public events. Meanwhile, Adam Schiff was before the Senator and the nation railing that the great existential danger to America was Trump possibly selling Alaska back to the Russians. I have not seen CNN show any of these old videos when these same people now claim it was Trump’s fault from the beginning.
As soon as China made the announcement, Russia started checking travelers returning from China, although clearly they did not have a test at that point. By the end of January Russia’s border with China was closed and a plan was being put in place. In America even after the dangers of the virus were becoming more publicized and the U.S. borders were closed with China, the political polarization in D.C. still seemed to keep the parties from working together to agree a comprehensive plan to combat the virus and the funding for it. It just seemed that this virus was only one facet of larger and more important political battles in the U.S.
As things progressed, I also was struck by how Putin stayed in control of the discussions and questions. It seemed Trump let “experts” like Anthony Fauci take over at times. The so-called “experts” seem to be setting national policy. And it became clear over time that Fauci’s predictions were horribly wrong. Policy had been based on his “models,” but obviously the models were bad—very bad. Actual case numbers turned out to be no where near what he had predicted. The policies, however, remained in place. Worse, Fauci never admitted or explained the huge discrepancies between his earlier predictions and what was actually happening. Now I hear there are suspicions about Fauci’s ties with vaccines, Bill Gates, and the profits involved. Was he objective? Clearly, he was terribly wrong on significant points. Yet he continued to be the “voice of science” at the press conferences. Bad data usually lead to bad decisions and policies.
This virus seems unpredictable, especially to a non-medical, non-scientist person like me. There were experts who cited evidence that showed lockdowns were essential. Then I watched interviews with people who had as many medical degrees and years of experience in epidemiology who said getting outside in the sun and building a “herd” immunity was the better route. Both groups cited data that supported their opinions. Who should we “common folk” believe? Leaders of all the countries need specialists who will give them all the data. In my opinion, Putin had better specialists who gave him raw data without an agenda. My opinion is based on the fact that things went much more like what the Russian advisers had indicated. Of course, being more accurate than Fauci is a pretty low bar to hurdle.
Public Life in Luga. Putin gave quite a bit of leeway to local leaders of the various regions in how far to go in restricting the movement of the citizens. He did not go “one size fits all.” The Leningrad Obast, in which we live, had 769 active cases and one death on the day of my research. (This Oblast covers an area a bit larger than South Carolina.) Neither I, Oksana, nor any of our family and friends personally know anyone who has had it.
My father-in-law told me 3 weeks ago that the authorities would allow people in Luga to get out in town only for food or emergencies. So I went for my walks in the forest near our home. But then Oksana and I went to get groceries, and I saw a good many folks about town. So I have resumed my walks through the streets in town, and I’ve had a good chance to observe people. Some, mostly older people, wear masks. People generally keep their distance.
When Oksana and I went to the grocery store it looked like the usual number of people. We saw some wearing masks, but the majority were not. Some grocery stores here are too small to allow much personal distancing. I saw no evidence of hoarding. There was plenty of food and other supplies in the stores. The “atmosphere” felt normal. We later went to a larger store here and the floor was marked with ductape strips showing how far to stand from others, and there were signs reminding everyone checking out to keep a distance. The cashiers have plastic guards between them and the customers.
Most small businesses and restaurants are closed, although some restaurants are open for take out or delivery. We ordered pizza delivered one night, and another night we got burgers and fries delivered. We can also order vegetables and meat from the local farmers that will bring them to our door. We did that even before the virus. We have continued going to the open market and buying dairy products. The vendor there, my “girlfriend” as Oksana calls her, wears gloves and a mask. Other than that, it is business as usual.
Government offices. Local government offices are open but with limited hours. One must make an appointment, rather than the usual practice of showing up and taking a ticket with a number. It was time for me to provide my annual income report for my residency. Making an appointment actually worked out better. Instead of waiting in line we went in the lady’s office promptly at the time of our appointment. She carefully went over the form, and we were out in just a few minutes. She was wearing a mask when we first came in, but as we chatted she pulled it down. A lot of people do that here.
I also needed to go to the “Pension Office” as well. Since I am a resident of retirement age in Russia I have an ID number—much like a social security number. When I get my permanent residency in Russia, I will start receiving a minimum “pension,” which will probably be about $100 a month, but I think that is not bad for someone who is not even a citizen. We went to the office because we had a problem registering online to handle my immigration business. The lady quickly helped me to set up an account online and we were on our way. She did the same thing with pulling down the mask to talk with us.
When I first started back walking downtown I saw very few city workers out. Last Monday I was shocked to see all crews out full force. There was a road crew doing repairs, a clean up crew sweeping, and a paint crew freshening things up.
Daily life in the home. The biggest issue we have had to deal with during this time is that the schools closed and all work has to be done online. This has been very difficult for Oksana and Gabriel. Gabriel has 14 classes total. Every day he has to do classwork and homework for 6 different subjects that the teachers have posted online. In general, Russian students have much more homework than American students—at least based on our experience. While Oksana has been helping Gabriel with his homework all year, she now has to go over and explain all the material, then the classwork and then all the homework. It is very time consuming!
Neither parents nor teachers here like the setup. The teachers have to go over all that work after the parents send it in. They say they are up till around 2:00 a.m., grading papers, watching videos, and preparing all the information they have to post for the next day. Without question, this has been the most difficult facet of the corona crisis for us.
Other than that our lives have been pretty normal. We have not been able to go to church simply because with all of our recent sicknesses (not related to CV) our doctor advised us not to. We should be back soon, but we missed Liturgy during Great Lent, and we were terribly disappointed. Pascha is the high point of the year for Orthodox. Our priest came to our home for prayers and to administer communion. My stepson Roman is home from college, since they also have gone online. He is able to do his work on his own, however, and he also helps around the house.
I read that 38% of the people in Russia really don’t think the lockdown approach helps. Yet, I don’t hear a lot of complaining, although some are clearly concerned as to whether the promised financial relief (especially for small businesses) will be coming. The emotions don’t seem to run as high as in America. I think since the enforcement of the rules is restrained confrontations are rare. If you are not doing something flagrant here, the police really don’t get involved. On my walks I see the same police van patrolling the streets every morning. Yet I’ve never seen them stop anyone. In general, people use common sense in pubic. It seems to be working.
Life in Big Cities. I will comment on a couple of other places in Russia where I have acquaintances and friends. St. Petersburg is about 90 miles away. The latest figures I could find list 3,254 active cases and 29 deaths. This is in a city of almost 7 million! I have an American friend there who, like me, takes walks. Technically they are forbidden, but, as in Luga, the police there are not stopping people. He and I both have had the experience of walking right by the police, and they say nothing. I heard from another source that people jog there just like they do in Luga. I suspect in a city that large there must have been confrontations, but it does not seem common from what I have heard. Here in NW Russia “lockdown” is definitely not the right word to describe the general restrictions. Putin calls these “non-working days.”
My contacts in Moscow paint a very different picture. Moscow has about 3.5 million more in population than New York City. It has 11,187 active CV cases and 611 deaths. Moscow has by far the highest number of cases in Russia. The rest are scattered over 11 time zones. Still, I have seen stats that show that well over 60% of those who test positive for CV in Moscow have been asymptomatic. Some said the figure now is as high as 90%.
While these figures are low compared to New York, the restrictions, according to my facebook friends in Moscow, have been “draconian.” The mayor of Moscow has been enforcing a strict lockdown. One friend says they only allowed people there to go out for groceries. Schools are closed, of course, as are churches and other meeting places. I was told they were even using surveillance cameras to track people earlier, although I understand they are letting up a bit. My latest contact said it was not quite as bad. Moscovites, according to what I’ve heard, have not been happy.
It does not seem to me the strict measures are helping, but I can’t prove that. It’s based merely on observations of “my two worlds” and following the news. I often tell my wife, I have a doctoral degree, but I can’t write prescriptions. As I mentioned above people from both perspectives present their views with evidence to support their positions. I only ask of those who argue for stricter enforcement that you not write me telling me I’m responsible for the deaths of people because I don’t obey all the strict lockdown rules. I’ve read the same evidence you have, and I’ve also read other evidence that says you’re wrong. It’s a confusing issue. People with medical degrees and years of experience disagree with each other. I think that mandates humility from all of us on both sides.
Poverty also tends to be linked with poor health and a number of other problems. As someone whose income is not impacted by a strict lockdown, it would be easy for me to insist everyone should stay home and keep the small businesses closed. Nevertheless, I have thought: What if this had happened while we were in America, and I was still working at that same small company? The answer is we would be experiencing financial disaster, as are so many Americans right now. That small company where I worked would probably not have survived a long lockdown. I would have been one of the millions of Americans unemployed—with a wife and three kids to support, a mortgage and a car payment.
I care deeply for anyone who contracts this disease. I was saddened to learn just this morning that a friend of mine in America lost someone very dear to her to COVID-19. I also care deeply for that single mom with kids who needs to wait on tables at the local diner to support them. Her job is not “non-essential.” I don’t think my opinion makes me especially noble. I believe most people feel the same way I do.
Further, there is evidence indicating CV is not nearly as deadly as Fauci and others said. What it has done is allow some politicians to exploit the fears of their constituents in order to increase their own power. Then you have the American oligarchs like Bill Gates who has no medical degree but is now a viral expert, pumping up his influence and bank account.
As I hear from my family and friends in America, I realize the change this crisis has brought to our lives in Luga is minor compared to what many of my American friends are going through. I can’t imagine how it is to really be in a lockdown there like they are. I have seen many videos they post of physical confrontations with police because people protested against the measures taken. I came of age during Vietnam. Protests were part of the cultural landscape. What does freedom of speech mean if you can’t protest?
I saw this morning that Youtube took down a viral video made by two emergency room doctors in California that had had about 5 million views. The doctors gave numbers that they claimed showed the virus is not nearly as lethal as we had been led to believe. The CEO of Youtube said that nothing which contradicts the information or suggestions from WHO would be allowed. This is despite the fact WHO has already been proven wrong twice. https://video.foxnews.com/v/6152742822001/
I watched the press conference where the governor of Michigan declared, without explanation, what she would and would not allow to be purchased in stores. Yes, you can buy junk food and liquor, but you cannot buy garden supplies or seeds. In other words, the candy and alcohol will help you, but you can’t have anything that would allow you to work outside and plant vegetables. The random and capricious exercise of authority is disturbing. The precedent this crisis has set for politicians to abuse power is what I fear most for America.
Next Blog. I hope to write my next blog soon. Putin just extended the “no work days” until May 12. I think his next presentation will be very important. Also, I want to address the completely false and deceptive information I have seen in the American media about Russia. I don’t mean distortions or exaggerations. I mean lies. From the New York Times to Fox News, I have read information that is completely wrong about the situation here.