Moscow virus doctors see no light at the end of the tunnel
MOSCOW, May 18, 2020 (BSS/AFP) – An exhausted coronavirus patient
slowly and deliberately writes his message on a green clipboard one
letter at a time: “Doctor, when can I go home?”
For the past three weeks, the 54-year-old has been on a ventilator
in a hospital in Moscow, the epicentre of the pandemic in Russia,
receiving treatment for the virus.
“Wait a while longer,” says Dmitry Cheboksarov, head of the
coronavirus ward at the Vinogradov hospital.
“We are teaching you how to breathe,” he says softly. “It will be
another four days.”
Pressure on the hospital in Moscow has eased since Russia reported
its record number of new coronavirus infections earlier this month.
But doctors and nurses in the coronavirus unit are working long
hours and treating a steady flow of patients that has kept their ward
at capacity. They say they have yet to see the light at the end of the
Cheboksarov, wearing a mask, goggles and a full protective suit,
explains that his patient’s health is improving. But he still needs to
be hooked up to respirator, which prevents him from speaking.
“Don’t be sad,” the doctor says. “Your loved ones are kissing you.
I’m in touch with them. They’ll phone you tomorrow.”
– ‘Try not to think’ –
The 36 beds in this coronavirus ward have been occupied continuously
since mid-April, says Cheboksarov, a father of two who estimates he
had slept an average of four hours every night for the past month.
“I try not to think about the end of the epidemic. It would get in
the way of my work.”
With more than 290,000 cases, Russia has the second-highest number
of infections in the world, behind only the United States.
HEALTH-VIRUS-RUSSIA SCENE-TWO LAST
Yet its death rate is low compared to other countries hit hard by the
virus: by Monday, health officials had reported a total of 2,722
Critics have cast doubt on the low official mortality rate, accusing
authorities of under-reporting deaths in order to play down the scale
of the crisis.
Russian health officials say one of the reasons the count is lower
is that only deaths directly caused by the virus are being included.
They also say that since the virus came later to Russia, the country
had more time to prepare hospital beds and launch wide-scale testing
to slow its spread.
During AFP’s visit Sunday, supervised by Moscow health officials,
three black body bags could be seen being moved from the ward’s “red
zone” where the virus patients are treated.
The number of medics in this coronavirus unit has grown dramatically
in recent weeks, from 20 to more than 90, Cheboksarov said. Medical
workers from across the country have joined his team.
– ‘Quiet day, terrible night’ –
Olga Chursinova an anaesthetist from Ivanovo northeast of Moscow has
been working at the Vinogradov hospital for a month.
“It’s hard,” she told AFP. “I have never seen anything like this.”
“The number of patients isn’t dropping, new patients keep arriving,”
the 57-year-old with dark circles under her eyes explained.
But the hospital in Moscow “has more modern equipment and more
medicine” compared to the facility where she works in Ivanovo, she
Medical workers throughout the country have raised concerns about
equipment, including a lack of protective gear for staff, and new
ventilators that have been blamed for deadly fires at hospitals in
Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
Elena Alkalaeva, 49, from Irkutsk in Siberia, said she responded to
a televised appeal for doctors to come to the capital out of a sense
Her temporary contract working in Moscow comes with a salary five
times higher than her job back home, she added, without specifying the
“I haven’t started to tell myself that things are calming down,” she
said during a break in her shift.
“You can have a quiet day here and then a terrible night. This is
how it works in the respiratory ward.”
Cheboksarov, the head of the ward, likened his team of medics to an
“orchestra,” which is getting more and more attuned to fighting the
“We didn’t have very much time to rehearse. But the show has started
and we will be here for as long as it takes.”