Russia’s citizens, neighbors show COVID-19 crisis might be worse than reported

Russia’s citizens, neighbors show COVID-19 crisis might be worse than reported

Top Stories | May 21, 2020:


Social media posts depicting convoys of ambulances stacking up outside Moscow hospitals coincided with news that Chinese nationals were fleeing Russia in droves to escape one of the world’s newest COVID-19 hot spots.

Despite Russia’s assertions that it had the coronavirus under control, its citizens and Chinese neighbors began telling a darker story in April and early May 2020. One of the first signs of a worsening outbreak surfaced April 10, 2020, with a photo on social media showing lines of what commenters said were 80 ambulances outside a Moscow hospital.

Researchers with the Digital Forensics Research Lab used geolocation to determine the ambulances were at the Federal Clinical Center for High-Tech Medicine, a hospital for veterans in the Moscow suburb of Khimki. The lab, which is an arm of the nonpartisan Atlantic Council, is dedicated to exposing disinformation. Using Google Maps and other digital tools, the researchers said the commenters weren’t far off: At the very least, they said, 60 ambulances were waiting to take patients into the hospital.

Soon after, more videos and photos surfaced showing two additional hospitals being bombarded with COVID-19 patients.

“On April 10, a video appeared on YouTube that may have been taken by a medical worker,” the lab reported. “In the video, she commented that Hospital No. 68 is becoming overwhelmed.”

The images call into question Russia’s official COVID-19 statistics, which by May 12, 2020, were 232,243 cases nationwide resulting in 2,116 deaths. (Pictured: A medical specialist wearing protective gear gets out of an ambulance outside a hospital on the outskirts of Moscow.)

As its own residents began registering concern, Russia’s neighbor closed the border for fear imported cases would cause a resurgence of disease inside China. When COVID-19 cases began to multiply in Russia, Chinese citizens hastily went home, according to the online magazine The Diplomat. By late April, almost 2,500 Chinese citizens had returned through Suifenhe, on the eastern edge of China’s 4,300-kilometer border with Russia. Of those, 377 were diagnosed with COVID-19.

The public health facilities of the city, which has a population of less than 80,000, were quickly overwhelmed, leading the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to close the border April 7. By stranding its citizens in Russia to buy time to get the resurgent virus under control, the PRC risked “spreading the virus throughout communities in the Russian Far East,” The Diplomat reported. “Even Chinese state media reported that the two countries appeared to be in discord over the border closure.”

Great secrecy still clouds the overall picture in Russia. Although the Kremlin has boasted that its high testing numbers and fewer deaths than other large countries are signs of success, the government curtailed independent reporting by making it illegal to publish or discuss “fake news” about the pandemic.

A May 2020 report by the Financial Times newspaper, however, estimated that deaths in Russia could be 70% higher than the government’s official figures.