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Does Russia really have coronavirus under control?

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By Rafael Cereceda  & Naira Davlashyan and Luke Hurst  with AFP
Does Russia really have coronavirus under control?
Copyright  Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Centre

Despite assurances from their government, many Russians have begun buying extra food and stockpiling supplies in anticipation of a possible coronavirus-related lockdown, such as the ones being enforced in countries across the world.

President Vladimir Putin had told Russians last week that timely measures put into place at the onset of the outbreak had helped to avoid a "massive epidemic” in the country. Putin had insisted that, in the largest country on the planet, coronavirus infections are "under control".

As of Monday, out of the world's more than 350,000 confirmed cases, only 438 have been reported in Russia.

That is despite Russia's population of around 144 million and its 4,000-kilometre border with China, where the outbreak began.

Putin credited "prompt measures taken in advance in the first weeks of the development of a pandemic" with the purported low infection rate, and said that large parts of the country have been carrying on with life as normal.

"We managed to contain a mass invasion and spread of the disease in Russia. Despite a potential high level of risk, we need to say that and I will come back to it again, the situation on the whole is under control."

However, over the weekend, Russia announced a series of strict measures such as the closure of borders and schools, and cancellation of flights. The government is also building a large hospital on the outskirts of Moscow, in the style of those China had erected in record time to deal with its own coronavirus crisis.

Doubts about the numbers

Suspicions are rife that the official figures could be false, because the data coming out of Russia seems to be contradictory. The Rosstat statistical agency claims pneumonia cases in Moscow increased by 37% in January 2020 compared to 2019. But the capital's health service insists that the number of out-of-hospital pneumonia cases decreased by 8% and 7% in the first two months of this year.

Health minister Mikhail Murashko says deaths from pneumonia have decreased by 20% this year.

Another factor is Russia's coronavirus screening tests. The country's health agency Rospotrebnadzor says more than 110,000 tests have been carried out. But the popular Moskovskiï Komsomolets newspaper has questioned the tests' reliability compared to those used elsewhere, because the only Russian patients declared positive have been ones with a severe form of COVID-19.