Russia

Cooking The Numbers? Locals In Russia’s Kaliningrad Say Coronavirus Testing Stopped In Bid To Show Fewer Cases

KALININGRAD, Russia — The official chart of new coronavirus cases for the western Russian exclave of Kaliningrad looks encouraging. In May and June, between 40 and 50 new cases were being reported daily, while in July and early August, the numbers were between 10 and 20, even as the region took significant steps to restart its economy.

According to the official numbers, 45 people in the region have died since the pandemic began, eight of them since July 1.

But some locals have raised the alarm that the rosy picture is being created artificially by a sharp reduction in the number of tests being administered.

“In my opinion, the authorities simply don’t want to ruin the nascent tourism season, which they have worked so hard to get going,” Kaliningrad journalist Oksana Shevchenko said. “They don’t want to close everything down again.”

“All these figures are simply fiction,” she asserted.

‘Don’t Worry, Go Home’

Shevchenko drew this conclusion not only from her own reporting on the pandemic in this city of about 480,000, capital of the Baltic Sea exclave with a total population of about 1 million, but also from her own experience. Late last month, she developed symptoms including headaches, a fever of up to 38.4 degrees Celsius, and difficulty breathing.

Oksana Shevchenko

Oksana Shevchenko

After trying unsuccessfully to reach her neighborhood public clinic by telephone, she went there in person. “After an hour and a half of waiting, I was able to see a doctor,” she recalled. “She listened to my lungs, looked in my throat and send me home. She said my lungs were clear and advised me to buy an over-the-counter antiviral medication. She told me not to worry.”

She was not offered a coronavirus test. Moreover, while she was waiting, she ran into a classmate of her daughter’s, who also had a fever and a sore throat. Moreover, he was considered a high-risk patient because he’d previously been treated for tuberculosis.

“He came out of the doctor’s office literally after two or three minutes,” Shevchenko said. “He was told not to worry and to go home and go to bed. I asked if they took a coronavirus test and he said, ‘No, they didn’t mention it.'”

Several days later, Shevchenko lost her sense of smell. A second trip to the clinic produced the same result — she was told to go home and take some cough medicine.

At the urging of her mother and after spending nearly a week in her apartment with her three children, Shevchenko paid for a coronavirus test at a private clinic. On July 28, it came back positive and she was rushed to Kaliningrad’s main infectious-diseases hospital.

When her local clinic learned about her diagnosis, they contacted her to request the test results.

“I said to them, “How did it happen that I went to you for help and you sent me away? I have three children and now they are home alone and I’m in the hospital,'” Shevchenko told RFE/RL. “And she said: ‘Yes, it turned out inconveniently. But we have an order only to give tests to patients older than 65 or with clear signs of pneumonia.'”

“I was on my own for a whole week and theoretically could have infected many people,” she said. Her parents and eldest daughter have since been tested with negative results. Her two youngest children have not been tested.

“In April, they tested everybody,” Shevchenko added. “And now practically no one. The reduction in the number of cases has been created artificially. They have simply stopped testing.”

Local authorities are accused of being desperate not to ruin the tourist season.

Local authorities are accused of being desperate not to ruin the tourist season.

Opening Up

In July, the region entered Phase 2 of the reopening of the economy, which included the opening of all cafes and restaurants; all retail outlets without restrictions; and all hotels, resorts, and sanatoriums. The exclave’s tourist attractions include Baltic Sea beaches and historic architecture in the capital, formerly the Prussian city of Koenigsberg.

The regional office of Rospotrebnadzor, which maintains the coronavirus statistics, declined to comment for this story. The agency does not report on the number of people tested by region.

The press office of the regional Health Ministry explained that “testing is not included in the program of free medical services, that is why it is conducted only according to specific medical indications or according to the instructions of Rospotrebnadzor — for people who have had contact with infected people.”

“Therefore, in accordance with the recommendation of Rospotrebnadzor as of July 27, free testing is available for workers in food services, retail sales, education establishments, and those who present with symptoms indicating a coronavirus infection,” the press office statement continued.

The officially reported coronavirus statistics from Russia have been the subject of serious doubts since the pandemic began. A survey of doctors in May found that more than 35 percent said they had been “given instructions” to manipulate statistics on the COVID-19 outbreak.

‘Nothing But Ballast’

In early July, it was reported that Rospotrebnadzor had ordered doctors in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg to sharply restrict the number of CT scans performed to diagnose coronavirus. There were reports of similar instructions in other cities, including Oryol and Orenburg. Critics speculated that the orders had been issued to paint an encouraging picture in the run-up to a national plebiscite on a controversial package of constitutional amendments that, among other things, enabled President Vladimir Putin to seek two more terms as president and possibly remain in power until 2036.

Yelena Voitekhovich

Yelena Voitekhovich

Ropotrebnadzor in Yekaterinburg denied issuing such an instruction.

Yelena Voitekhovich, a 62-year-old retiree in Kaliningrad, also recently experienced symptoms but was unable to get a test, despite being in a high-risk group.

“Retirees are a risk group — they told us that, warned us, and promised to help us,” Voitekhovich told RFE/RL. “But once again we see the bitter truth that the elderly in Russia are nothing but ballast to the government.”

Voitekhovich has scheduled a CT scan at a private clinic at a cost of 3,500 rubles ($48), minus a 5 percent senior discount.

“How can we believe the infection figures if diagnostics are so controversial and selective,” she said. “Doubts are inevitable. Maybe there is such a policy — not to reveal the whole picture of what is going on, to paint over reality so that it won’t be so frightening? Since the authorities are constantly lying to us — and this is a main feature of the system — it would be perfectly consistent to embellish the statistics.”

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Kaliningrad by Yulia Paramonova of the North Desk of RFE/RL’s Russian Service

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