COVID- 19: The View from Siberia

Coronavirus File Photo adapted from image at cdc.gov

Subject: COVID-19: The View From Siberia
Date: Wed, 18 Mar 2020
From: Sarah Lindemann-Komarova <echosiberia@gmail.com>

COVID- 19: The View from Siberia
By Sarah Lindemann-Komarova
[Sarah Lindemann-Komarova has been a community development activist in Siberia since 1992.]
With pictures: medium.com/@ECHOSiberia/covid-19-the-view-from-siberia-fd04bfa38db5

I did not do any special reporting for this piece. It is a chronology of consciousness and events in relation to the COVID 19 pandemic as they evolved in the normal course of life in Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk (the third largest city in Russia).

It began as in most of the rest of the world with information about a virus in Wuhan appearing in regular news updates. When the Russian Government banned Chinese nationals from entering the country on February 20 followed by Iranians on the 28th there was no noticeable buzz. The first mention in my circle came from my hairdresser on March 2. We were discussing my country house in the Altai Republic and she said “that is going to be the big vacation destination this summer. All my friends are planning their vacations there, no one wants to risk cancellations”.

From March 3-11, most public discourse was focused on constitutional changes and Tereshkova’s zeroing out Putin’s Presidential term. In Novosibirsk, a petition to rename Tereshkova Street was born. On March 12, following the increasing alarm in America, I decided on a whim to stop into a drug store to see if I could get masks and hand sanitizer. I was surprised when the clerk asked how many and I left with 12 masks, 6 traveler size bottles of hand sanitizer and one large. Later that evening I discovered I was not the only person tracking virus developments internationally. Natalia Pinus, our Independent elected City Government Deputy, initiated the first local public discussion in a long Facebook post detailing her attempts to get a Coronavirus test. It began with a slight fever, sore throat, and headache that she described as similar to a cold. Inspired by the WHO’s designation of the virus as a pandemic a day earlier, she decided to get a test for COVID-19. She called a private clinic that told her they have no tests, she must contact the public polyclinic. 70 minutes after arriving at the Clinic (most of this time standing in various lines plus a visit to a GP) she met with an infectious disease specialist. The doctor asked if she had been to China, Korea, or Italy recently. When she said “no”, she was told they are only testing people who have. After some back and forth resulting in the same conclusion, the Doctor recommended buying or making a gauze mask, washing your hands more often, and drinking a warm beverage. Natalia ended her post saying she had no confidence that the Novosibirsk Ministry of Health was in anyway prepared for this virus. There were 572 comments and 760 shares

Friday March 13 I attended a conference on Social Entrepreneurship. The over 100 participants were mostly young (20’s). Every person I knew, some pensioners, tried to greet me with a hug, except for a woman visiting from England. No one was talking about the virus but on my way home I stopped into five drug stores and none of them had masks or hand sanitizer.

Saturday March 14: Natalia announced on Facebook that the City Council had agreed to conduct a special session to discuss the virus next week. The first two confirmed cases of the virus in Siberia appeared in Kemerovo. Both patients had recently arrived from Italy and were hospitalized on the 13th. My husband and I decided to prepare for the worst bought a freezer and went shopping at Auchan and IKEA. Shelves were full, plenty of people but not crowded and no one had masks on. The cashier at Auchan had one gloved hand and one bare and kept coughing. That evening my husband ordered anti-bacterial wipes on the Internet.

Sunday March 15: Natalia wrote a post discussing the need to start a discussion on the economic impacts and possible compensation for workers and businesses. We went to the local stores for frozen food and, again, no masks and plenty of people. We wrote the Director of our daughter’s school to ask if there were any plans to close early, the spring break was scheduled to start after Saturday classes on the 21st. She first responded there were changes, a couple of hours later a What’s App message told parents they could voluntarily keep their children home.

Monday March 16: The Novosibirsk Oblast Ministry of Education ordered the schools closed starting Wednesday March 18. My daughter came home and said that two classes didn’t show up because the mother of one of the students was on the same flight as the Kemerovo patients. She, along with 56 other passengers were among 543 people under quarantine and observation in Novosibirsk where there was still not one confirmed case. Natalis Pinus attended a meeting with a small group of medical specialists in Akademogorodok to get a better understanding of virus truth and fiction and what was being done in Novosibirsk. I translate the Novosibirsk State University website and late in the day they sent me their Press Release announcing the University was going digital for the 7,000 students. In bold letters they also said that no one was getting evicted from the dorms. Good news for at least 1,000 foreign students from China, Iran, France, Italy, Iraq, India, etc.

Tuesday March 17: There are four more cases of the virus in Siberia, two in Tyumen, one in Krasnoyarsk, and one in Khakassia. There are now 40 more people under observation for the virus in Novosibirsk. A community activist in Khavbarovsk posted a tutorial video of an infection specialist demonstrating how to increase the potency of your mask with a sanitary napkin. Natalia posted two detailed reports, the first was from the meeting with experts. The only real news was that tests may be available at commercial clinics within a week. The second report was the groups 10 key recommendations to the government including testing for all, prepare medical facilities, and develop an economic plan including tax and interest breaks for business. In the comment section, one woman appealed to Natalia to check out the situation in a local hospital. Her sister was taken there in an ambulance with symptoms corresponding to COVID-19. The hospital was already full so she was placed in a general ward with people suffering similar symptoms. Natalia said she would look into it.

During my usually solo morning ski, I noticed that for many young and middle aged men self-isolation included skiing. A Tayga.Info article said that in addition to conducting all COVID-19 tests and preparing test kits, the well respected “Vector” Center of Virology and Biotechnology announced they were starting to test 10-12 possible vaccines on animals and hope to have 1 or 2 serious contenders by June. During an evening walk around town the streets were full with people of all ages and only two young women wore masks, the two hippest coffee shops had numerous customers, I saw a Uni teacher buying a large bottle of wine in the market, and my favorite cashier said “life goes on”. That sentiment was echoed by the lady in the kiosk for home cleaning and personal care products, “whatever will be will be”. But she added that a customer told her that a group of German tourists were taken to Vector for testing and if they have the virus people may react. Most but not all of her toilet paper was gone, no hand sanitizer, a new shipment is expected Friday.

March 18 and as of today no foreign nationals will be allowed in Russia until May 1. My daughter is home, my husband is still going to work. He is head of data science for a big financial services company and they are in the process of setting up a system so they can work from home, hopefully by Monday. I passed several parents teaching their kids to ski today. Natalia posted about the City Council meeting. There are 1377 specialized beds and 570 respirators in the Region. The plan is buy another 16 respirators and have beds for up to 2,000 patients. Much of the behavioral elements of the program are still recommendations. Some of what they say is in place is clearly not happening. There are news reports of empty shelves in the City 30 km away but here, still food, still people without masks in cafes and restaurants. Russians are not panic-ers but is this the calm before a storm that will shake us all regardless of how well prepared we are, or have the fates, just this once, gone easy on the people of Siberia?

14:33, Tayga.info announced the first official case of COVID-19 in Novosibirsk and one in Tomsk.