The head of Russia’s coronavirus task force, Tatyana Golikova, assured President Vladimir Putin in mid-March that the country was ready to take on the pandemic. From masks to ventilators, she said, Russia’s hospitals had everything they needed to weather the crisis.
“There is no reason at all to panic,” she said.
A week later, the head doctor of one of Moscow’s top hospitals caring for coronavirus patients quietly wrote to a medical charity asking for help. The hospital, he wrote, was in need of “disposable materials and equipment” to continue to serve the critically ill.
“We’re used to always living, somehow, in the unspoken, looking through rose-colored glasses,” said Elena Smirnova, head of the charity, Sozidaniye. “They can’t hide this anymore.”
There was talk that Putin’s early move to shut down most travel from China, along with an extensive testing and contact-tracing effort rooted in the Soviet Union’s disease-fighting legacy, was succeeding where Italy, Spain and the United States all had failed.
So confident was the Kremlin that it dispatched planeloads of aid to Italy, Serbia and even Kennedy Airport in New York, signaling that Russia had stockpiled so many masks and ventilators that it was able to share some of them with less fortunate countries.
But it has become clear in recent days that Russia is unlikely to escape a severe hit by the pandemic, presenting an existential test to the country’s teetering health system and a new challenge to the aura of rising confidence and competence projected by Putin’s Kremlin.
“We have a lot of problems, and we don’t have much to brag about nor reason to, and we certainly can’t relax,” Putin told senior officials Monday in his bleakest comments on the crisis yet. “We are not past the peak of the epidemic, not even in Moscow.”