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World

Russia's Putin Conveys Cautious Optimism About COVID-19 Outbreak

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

For weeks, it seemed like Russia may have escaped the coronavirus pandemic. Well, that is no longer the case. Cases have now exceeded 52,000, and Moscow is entering its fourth week of lockdown. NPR's Charles Maynes joins us now from the Russian capital. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So as we've seen the number of cases go up, we're also seeing President Vladimir Putin's visibility go up as well. He seemed so absent for a long time, but he's front and center now.

MAYNES: That's right. It seems about just every day of late Putin holds some event related to the coronavirus, and the message is he's in control and things are looking up to a degree. Yesterday, that's what we heard at a meeting between Putin and his task force of infection experts and ministers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So you hear Putin saying that, on the whole, we're managing the first task, which is slowing the spread of the virus. But he goes on to say, you know, you shouldn't take too much comfort in that; the peak is ahead. And this mixed picture, it turns - you know, we have this under control; at other moments, this will get worse before it gets better - is very much in keeping with Putin's message of late.

GREENE: So does Putin's message match up with the numbers that we're seeing?

MAYNES: Well, authorities here are really seizing on evidence from Monday that the virus is softening a bit in Moscow in particular. Russia's health minister and the mayor came out and said these measures they've taken, mainly what they're calling self-isolation stay-at-home orders, also some limited digital passes that they're issuing for - that limit how much people can move around the city, that these measures are working.

And it seems borne out at least a little bit by anecdotal evidence. I spoke with a handful of doctors in Moscow over the weekend, you know, and basically, they say that after a rocky start - there were these, you know, huge lines to get in the hospitals just a week ago - they've kind of ironed out these problems. They're maybe stretched thin but managing. And the thing is, you have to keep in mind that Moscow is an oasis of sorts. David, you know this well. I mean, it's got the majority of cases - a little over 50% - but it also has almost all of the resources. And the doctors know it.

I want to play a little bit of tape from an interview I did with Dr. Alexander Vanyukov. He's the head of Vascular Department at City Hospital 52.

ALEXANDER VANYUKOV: In Moscow, it's not problem with equipment, with protective gloves, other scrubs. We have everything we need. But (laughter) in the other cities, they're in a terrifying situation.

GREENE: Yeah, it's amazing, Charles. I do remember from living there, it's like there's Moscow and there's the rest of Russia. And that really seems to be a narrative playing...

MAYNES: That's right.

GREENE: ...Out here. So the real concern is out in the regions. They might just not have the resources to deal with this outbreak if it gets worse.

MAYNES: That's right. And attention is really now shifting that direction. Russia, of course, is huge. The virus has been tracked in all 85 of Russia's regions. In some places, experts see infections spikes actually outpacing Moscow - so places like the Komi Republic in the north, the city of Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, also Ufa in central Russia. You know, these are just some areas that have already seen significant spikes. Kremlin officials say more are likely to follow.

And, you know, even the Kremlin acknowledges that a lot of regional health care systems just aren't ready. You know, they lack beds, medical personnel, protective gear. So what happens when staff at these places get sick?

GREENE: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow giving us the latest on the coronavirus outbreak in Russia. Charles, thanks so much as always.

MAYNES: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.