MOSCOW — The two Russian paramedics were dressed for work in the video, masks covering their noses and mouths as they delivered a grim dispatch.
The narrator identified himself as Alexander Kosyakin and his colleague as Alexander Shulepov. Shulepov had just learned that he tested positive for the coronavirus, Kosyakin said, yet “the head doctor forces us to continue working, and what can we do in the situation?”
“We haven’t been released from our shift,” Shulepov said. Both work in Voronezh, a city about 300 miles south of Moscow.
In a second video released days later by the press secretary of the regional health department, Shulepov backed off those comments, saying that he had been “emotional” and that his boss did eventually tell him to stop working.
Shulepov was admitted to the hospital, and it was there on May 1 that he fell from a second-floor window in what local authorities have called an accident.
Shulepov, who is in critical condition with a skull fracture, is the third Russian medical professional in two weeks to mysteriously fall from a hospital window. The other two died.
A week before Shulepov’s fall, Natalya Lebedeva, who ran an ambulance station at a cosmonaut training center outside Moscow, fell to her death from a window at the hospital where she was being treated for suspected COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The next day, Yelena Nepomnyashchaya, the head of a hospital in Krasnoyarsk, a city in western Siberia, fell from the window of her fifth-floor office, reportedly right after she had a conference call with regional health officials.
Nepomnyashchaya was allegedly opposed to converting a ward in the hospital to house coronavirus patients because of a shortage of trained personnel and protective equipment, according to a local media report that cited anonymous sources. Krasnoyarsk health officials denied that the conference call took place.
The incidents have highlighted escalating tensions in a Russian health-care system under pressure from a surge of coronavirus cases and a shortage of medical professionals. With doctors, nurses and medics reportedly accounting for roughly 7% of the country’s official coronavirus fatalities, the medical community has increasingly taken to social media to voice frustrations about poor working conditions and the continued absence of stipends promised by President Vladimir Putin.
Some, like Marianna Zamyatina, a cardiologist in St. Petersburg, and Natalya Lyubimaya, a junior medic who worked at Moscow’s main coronavirus hospital, have quit their jobs.
“If I hadn’t quit, I would’ve been infected in a couple of days,” Zamyatina said, adding that her complaints to hospital administration about insufficient personal protective equipment resulted in a demotion. Because the hospital didn’t supply her with a respirator mask, she said, she wore a welding shield that her husband purchased.
Zamyatina said that of the 15-person cardiology staff reassigned to work with coronavirus patients, five became infected.
Russia has recorded more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases in each of the past three days; the country’s confirmed total has eclipsed 165,000, with more than 1,500 deaths. There is no official data on how many health-care professionals have died of the coronavirus, so doctors anonymously created an online “memory list” to keep a count of their fallen colleagues. As of Wednesday, it had 108 names.
Two days before Kosyakin recorded the video with Shulepov, Kosyakin authored a social media post in which he complained about a shortage of personal protective equipment at the Novousmanskaya hospital, where he worked. The post was later removed without his knowledge, he said, and he was informed by authorities that he faces charges for spreading “fake news” about the virus. The Voronezh region health department denied Kosyakin’s claims.
“Lots of my colleagues said I’m like a revolutionary or a rebel, but I’m not,” Kosyakin said. “I’m just telling the truth.”
But such first-person accounts have been popping up with increasing frequency, as have reports of doctors quitting. The chief physician of Omsk’s city hospital, Georgy Sobolev, resigned Tuesday “because he failed to keep his staff away from the virus or take the necessary epidemiological security measures,” the region’s health minister, Irina Soldatova, said in a statement. Sixteen of the hospital’s staff have contracted the coronavirus.
Lyubimaya, who works for the medical outsourcing company Arni, said Moscow’s Kommunarka hospital forced junior medical staff like her to wear used protective gear. Because she is not employed by the hospital itself, she said, she was never tested for the virus or provided accommodations, so she traveled to and from work on public transportation each day and risked unknowingly bringing the virus home.
“I have five children,” Lyubimaya said. “It’s one thing to risk my own life, but I don’t want to risk the lives of my family and my children.”
Lyubimaya’s “last straw” was the pay. In a televised address last month, Putin promised to allocate $132 million toward monthly bonuses for health-care workers; doctors treating coronavirus patients would receive an extra $1,000 a month, while nurses, ambulance medics and drivers would get amounts ranging from $335 to $670. Lyubimaya said she has yet to receive that money, a claim echoed by Zamyatina.
“The situation with the payments is not great, far from it,” said Andrei Konoval, co-chairman of the independent medical labor union Action. Even the few who received the bonuses were given only a fraction of the amounts promised, Konoval said, because the money was calculated based on hours spent treating coronavirus patients, not handed out as a lump sum.
Lyubimaya said she had made roughly $350 for a month of work at Kommunarka, less than what she was earning before she started working with coronavirus patients. She said dozens of nurses and junior medical staff also had resigned along with her, something Denis Protsenko, Kommunarka’s chief doctor, has denied. Protsenko has recovered from his own bout with the virus.
After Lyubimaya aired her concerns in a widely circulated video, Protsenko said on Facebook that allegations about a lack of PPE at the hospital were false and that his hospital had met all of its obligations to Arni. He added that he was in talks with the company to try to help solve the pay issue. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, cast doubt on Lyubimaya’s credentials in a television interview and said that Arni did not pay her the money.
Ostracism has long been a possible consequence for speaking out in Russia. Kosyakin, the paramedic in Voronezh, will return to work once his two-week quarantine is completed. He said he is worried about the reception from colleagues and hospital administration given his social media posts. But he is more concerned about his colleague’s condition after falling two stories.
“I just don’t know what to say,” Kosyakin said. “High-ranking and highly qualified doctors are falling out of windows. I have no explanation for it.”