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Health Care Workers In Russia Pay Deadly Price Fighting COVID-19

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russia, which once posed as though it might have fended off the pandemic, did not. As of this week, the country has recorded over 100,000 suspected cases. Even the prime minister says he has tested positive and will self-isolate. The groups of Russians hardest hit include nurses and doctors. NPR's Charles Maynes reports from Moscow.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: As the coronavirus has taken hold in Russia, President Vladimir Putin has assumed his traditional role as man in charge...

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: ...Dispensing orders to provide more beds and ventilators to hospitals and give health care workers what they need.

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PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Putin's even announced special pay raises for those on the frontline.

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PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: All good ideas. The problem has been implementing them. And meanwhile, health care workers are paying the price. In the highly centralized system that Putin has built over his 20 years in power, it falls on Russia's governors, mayors and bureaucrats to carry out the Kremlin's orders or else. But there are signs that local officials are whitewashing problems rather than delivering bad news up the chain of command.

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RADII KHABIROV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Take Radii Khabirov (ph), the governor of Bashkortostan in central Russia, which has faced a COVID-19 flare in the Republic's main hospital.

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KHABIROV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: After doctors spoke out about the lack of protective equipment, Khabirov's response was to chastise. If you don't have masks or something, come to us, he said. Don't beg. It's shameful.

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KHABIROV: (Speaking Russian).

REENA KAMALOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Yet the hospitals' veteran rheumatologist, Reema Kamalova (ph), tells NPR that her colleagues were shocked when the governor ordered the affected hospitals sealed off, forcibly quarantining hundreds of patients and staff, and leaving them to fend for themselves. Governor Khabirov then blamed sick health care workers for spreading the disease. And pressure has come in other ways.

NATALYA TROFIMOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Dr. Natalia Trofimova (ph) says she was fired from her job in the western region of Leningradskaya after warning that a new COVID-19 ward wasn't safe for either patients or staff. Or take the experience of Irina Varkhonova (ph) in Yaroslavl, about a three hour's drive from Moscow.

IRINA VARKHONOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: She says most hospitals in the region now have protective gear, but with a catch. Hospital administrators only issue it when there are government inspections. Even Moscow has its problems.

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UNIDENTIFIED NURSE: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: One nurse appealed for public support when medical workers walked off the job at the city's new infection unit after not receiving promised danger pay.

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UNIDENTIFIED NURSE: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: It's just the latest disconnect between policy at the top and reality on the ground, which can have terrible consequences. Figures are hard to come by, but one doctor's group says it knows more than 80 health workers who have died so far. In one case, an ER doctor even committed suicide after authorities blamed her for spreading the virus. But there are signs that doctors' complaints are beginning to be heard.

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PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: In a video conference with governors this week, Putin acknowledged that despite ramping up production of mass ventilators and protective suits, it wasn't enough. The Russian leader then told officials to act and not wait for a command from the top.

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PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: In other words, take the initiative. Another good Putin idea, but one that goes counter to the way he's ruled Russia all these years.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.