Musa Salgereyev / TASS
The Kremlin is competing to shut down a health crisis in the southern republic of Dagestan, where a sharp rise in deaths that have not been attributed to the coronavirus again raises questions about the severity of the outbreak and how Russia repeats its COVID-19 deaths.
National attention fell on Dagestan, a majority Muslim republic of nearly 3 million people, after local video blogger Ruslan Kurbanov interviewed Republic Health Minister Dzhamaludin Gadzhiibragimov last weekend on his YouTube channel.
“Can you tell us how many people have been infected and how many have died?” Kurbanov asked.
Gadzhiibragimov’s response: Twenty-eight deaths from COVID-19 among 13,000 infections. But 657 people, he added, had died of “community-acquired pneumonia.” He also said that more than 40 medical personnel had died while on duty.
The announcement took the headlines in Moscow but only reinforced what Dagestanis already knew, local activists said.
“It wasn’t a sensation at all,” said Ziautdin Uvaisov of Patient Monitor, a Dagestan-based support organization. “People could see the dead stack up, and it became clear long ago that official statistics have no basis in reality.”
In fact, medical people in the Republic have heard the alarm since mid-April. And this week another key figure joined the call for help.
Dagestan’s most famous celebrity, mixed martial arts champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, went public about the toll of the virus on his family.
“It’s a very difficult situation. I personally have over 20 relatives … who were in intensive care. Many of them are no longer with us. Many of my acquaintances are dead,” Nurmagomedov said this week in an Instagram video, which collected more than 4 million views. His father was evacuated to a Moscow hospital and is in a medically induced coma.
In the midst of a growing public uprising, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been forced to intervene.
In a video conference between Putin and local leaders this week, Dagestan’s high priest, Mufti Ahmad Abdulaev, described the local response to the virus as a “disaster” and pleaded for help.
Putin dispatched medical teams and representatives of the Russian Ministry of Emergency to help prevent Dagestan’s outbreak of “urgent action.” But the Russian leader also blames Dagestanis for gathering in the crowds and later did not seek emergency medical care on time.
“It’s true that people were slow to believe the virus, but that’s because state TV told them it wasn’t serious. It was nothing worse than the average flu,” said Magomed Magomedov, assistant editor of the Independent Chernovik newspaper in the capital, Makhachkala. “But that doesn’t explain why the hospitals didn’t have what they needed.”
When the Republic’s medical workers complained about the lack of protective equipment, Dagestani residents and companies gathered to help fill the need.
“The Kremlin help is good, but it’s a little late,” said Uvaisov of Patient Monitor.
A new test may come with the Eid al-Fitr celebration at the end of Ramadan this weekend. Authorities are urging people to stay home.
With more than 326,000 cases, Russia has risen to second place in the global number of coronavirus infections, following the United States. But media organizations have discovered evidence that the government has reported deaths in COVID-19 – now officially at 3,249, according to data compiled by John Hopkins University.
Russian health experts have defended their death toll, insisting that they reflect a more thorough assessment of mortality than those used elsewhere.