Russia debates lockdown withdrawal as virus cases reach new highs

The number of infections in Russia has been rising by more than 10,000 a day since Sunday (AFP Photo/Alexander NEMENOV)

President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday chaired a meeting to discuss a gradual withdrawal from lockdown as Russia registered the world’s sixth highest total number of coronavirus cases.

Russia recorded more than 10,000 new cases for the fourth day in a row, bringing the total number of confirmed infections to 165,929, with 1,537 deaths.

Russia has emerged as a new hotspot for the virus and in recent days has been recording the highest number of new infections in Europe.

The increase in the total number of cases took Russia to fifth place in Europe, behind Spain, Italy, Britain and France, and sixth in the world, as the United States leads the global tally.

Since the start of the crisis, Putin’s approval rating has dropped to a historic low, according to independent pollster Levada, which said Wednesday it fell to 59 percent in April from 63 percent in March.

Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova became the latest top official to test positive for coronavirus, after Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and his construction minister were hospitalised with the infection.

Speaking at a government meeting, Putin told regional governors to develop plans to gradually lift lockdown restrictions but cautioned against acting too hastily to avoid a new wave of infections.

“We should not run ahead of ourselves,” Putin said, adding that in some regions restrictive measures should remain in place and even be tightened.

“The price of even the smallest mistake is the safety, lives and health of our people,” he said.

“We should be moving forward gradually.”

Putin said Mishustin had a slight temperature but was recovering and they were in daily contact.

A non-working quarantine period is in place in Russia until May 11.

– ‘Important for economy’ –

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said stay-at-home restrictions would remain in place beyond this deadline but companies involved in industry and construction would be allowed to return to work.

“This is important for the economy of the city and very important for the economy of the country,” said Sobyanin.

Moscow has emerged as the epicentre of the pandemic in Russia with 85,973 cases and 866 deaths.

Sobyanin said the number of seriously ill patients in the city has stayed largely stable over the past two weeks while the total number of cases is higher because of wider testing.

The number of infections in Russia has been rising by more than 10,000 a day since Sunday, in contrast to countries in western Europe that are taking steps to ease lockdown measures.

Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said some 80,000 people are currently hospitalised and more than 1,000 are on ventilators.

Despite the sharp rise, Russia’s fatality rate has remained low in comparison to countries with similar levels of infections.

Officials credit quick moves to close the country’s borders, as well as widespread testing and tracking of infections, but critics have cast doubt on the numbers.

The government has announced a number of measures to buttress the economy but has been accused of not doing enough to support ordinary Russians in the face of what is likely to be a long economic downturn.

– Temporary hospitals –

Some economists have said Moscow should be tapping its national wealth fund — which has accumulated some $150 billion — to provide more support.

But Finance Minister Anton Siluanov was quoted in business daily Vedomosti as saying the government does not want to spend too much of the fund.

“It would not be right to max it out in two years,” Siluanov said.

Moscow authorities have imposed strict lockdown measures, with residents allowed out only for brief trips to a shop, to walk dogs or to travel to essential jobs with a permit.

The government said there was no shortage of hospital beds but Moscow authorities are still preparing to set up temporary field hospitals around the city of more than 12 million people.

Some medical workers have complained of shortages of protective gear and said medics are dying at a higher rate in Russia than elsewhere.

An unofficial list of deaths among medics started by a group of Russian doctors listed 111 names as of Wednesday, including some from neighbouring Belarus.


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