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In Russia and Ukraine, no social distance on crowded beaches

July 06, 2020

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Tens of thousands of vacation-goers in Russia and Ukraine have descended on Black Sea beaches, paying little heed to public health measures despite the numbers of reported coronavirus cases remaining high in both countries.

Desperate for a break from the confinement of months-long lockdowns, few wear masks or try to maintain social distance as they bask in the sun on overcrowded beaches in the Russian city of Sochi and in the Ukrainian seaport of Odesa.

While popular vacation destinations in Europe are still closed to visitors from Russia and Ukraine as European nations move carefully to lift restrictions on foreign visitors, Black Sea resorts in Russia and Ukraine are filled to capacity from domestic tourism.

“We usually go abroad: the Emirates, Tunisia, Turkey, and we did plan to go again this year,” Tatyana Kofler, a Russian who is spending her summer leave in Sochi, said. “But then our plans changed.” The owners of beaches that require a fee place lounge chairs at required intervals, but on the city’s public beaches few visitors appeared concerned with trying to avoid COVID-19 by maintaining a safe distance.

Hotel owners are happy about the bonanza, and prices for rooms are soaring. “Our hotel is booked to the max, and the projections are very optimistic, because preliminary bookings indicate the load will remain very good up to November,” said David Vardanyan, a Sochi hotel owner.

In the past, many Russians who live in the eastern part of a country that spans 11 time zones took vacations in Thailand, China or Vietnam to save money on air travel. Those destinations remain off-limits to foreigners, too, for now, helping swell the numbers of people streaming westward to Sochi and the Crimean Peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Last year, Sochi and other resorts in the Krasnodar region of Russia attracted 17 million tourists, most of them Russian, while about 7 million visited Crimea. In comparison, 18 million Russians spent their vacations abroad in 2019. Some 7 million traveled to Turkey, about 1.5 million visited Thailand, 1.2 million spent their vacations in Spain and about 1 million visited Italy among other foreign destinations.

Now, Russian sun-lovers are left with the narrow pebble beaches of Sochi or Crimea as their only beach vacation options. A 19-kilometer (12-mile) bridge to Crimea that opened in 2018 facilitated travel to the region, but it has suffered from freshwater shortages and rationing resulting from Ukraine cutting supplies. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, a move that Ukraine and most of the world regards as illegal, problems that overshadow the attractiveness of the Black Sea peninsula’s beautiful coast and scenic mountains.

Both in Sochi and Crimea, popular hotels that offer European standards of comfort already are fully booked for the summer. “Tourists who traveled to Cyprus, Turkey, Greece or Spain during the past years have grown accustomed to a certain level of comfort,” Alexan Mkrtchian, head of the Pink Elephant tourist agency, said, according to the Interfax news agency. “Only 20 to 30 hotels meet those criteria.”

Mkrtchian noted that a jump in demand provoked a hike in hotel prices that jumped by 50% in Sochi and up to 100% in Crimea, costing a couple of hundreds dollars or more for lodging at an average 4-star hotel.

The flow of visitors to seaside resorts comes at a time when both Russia and Ukraine are continuing to report high daily numbers of new cases. Russia, which has the world’s fourth-largest coronavirus caseload of more than 687,000 following the United States, Brazil and India, currently registers daily infection numbers topping 6,600. While Moscow has ended a lockdown as contagion dropped, many other regions of the vast country have kept restrictions in place.

Ukraine, which lifted most lockdown measures last month, has seen infections reaching new highs in recent weeks, prompting the authorities to consider re-imposing restrictions in some areas. In Ukraine’s Odesa, traffic jams at the entrance to the city spread for kilometers (miles), and crowds besiege the city’s night clubs after sunset. Vacationing visitors are flouting rules to wear masks in public and paying little attention to maintaining social distance. Officials are worried about a possible spike in coronavirus infections.

“The Ukrainians are afraid of the coronavirus less than anyone in the world,” said Fazil Askerov, chairman of the Tourism Development Association in the Odesa region. “Our tourists are braver.”

Russian monk denying coronavirus takes control of monastery

June 17, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — A rebellious Russian monk who has denied the coronavirus’ existence and urged believers to ignore the Kremlin’s lockdown orders has taken control of a monastery in the Ural Mountains. Father Sergiy showed up Tuesday at the Sredneuralsk women’s monastery that he had founded years ago and took charge. Scores of volunteers, including battle-hardened veterans of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, helped enforce his rules, while the prioress and several nuns have left.

Hundreds of believers from Yekaterinburg and other cities in the Urals have flocked to the convent to hear the priest’s fiery sermons. The Russian Orthodox Church has denounced Father Sergiy’s move, saying he has been banned from conducting church services and urging him to repent. Police visited the monastery Wednesday and found no violations.

Last month, the monk was suspended by the church leadership following his continuous calls to disobey the closure of churches during the lockdown. Orthodox churches across Russia were closed to parishioners on April 13 because of the coronavirus outbreak and were only allowed to reopen earlier this month.

Father Sergiy has declared the coronavirus non-existent and urged believers to ignore the lockdown orders from authorities. He denounced electronic passes introduced in Moscow and some other regions as part of efforts to stem the outbreak as “Satan’s electronic camp.” The monk has described the vaccines being developed against COVID-19 as part of a global plot to control the masses.

Next week, Father Sergiy will face a church panel that will decide on his future. He also has faced charges of spreading false information about the coronavirus, The monk has ignored the church’s ban. In a video from his cell where icons and images of Orthodox Church hierarchs of the past adorn the wall alongside pictures of Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II, and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, he warned church officials that they will need to seize the monastery by force to get him out.

Russia’s low virus death toll still raises questions in West

June 14, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — When Leonid Shlykov’s father, Sergei, died in a Moscow hospital last month after 11 days on a ventilator, the death certificate listed the coronavirus as an underlying condition but not the actual cause of death.

“Yes, he was suffering from impaired kidney function and diabetes, but if it hadn’t been for COVID-19, he would’ve been alive,” the son wrote on Facebook. “If we had known the real number of infections and deaths … it would have helped us make the decision to hospitalize (dad) earlier.”

The way Russia counts fatalities during the coronavirus pandemic could be one reason why its official death toll of 6,948 is far below many other countries, even as it has reported nearly 529,000 infections, behind only the United States and Brazil.

The paradox also has led to allegations by critics and Western media that Russian authorities might have falsified the numbers for political purposes to play down the scale of the outbreak. Even a top World Health Organization official said the low number of deaths in Russia “certainly is unusual.”

Russian authorities have bristled at the suggestions. “We have never manipulated the official statistics,” said Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova. Finding the true numbers during the pandemic is difficult, since countries count cases and deaths in different ways and testing for the virus is uneven.

Still, several factors could contribute to Russia’s low virus mortality rate, including the way it counts deaths, a tendency among some officials to embellish statistics, its vast geography and the shorter life expectancy of its population.

An autopsy is mandatory in Russia in every confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19, with a determination on the cause of death made by a commission of specialists, said Dr. Natalia Belitchenko, a pathologist in the medical examiner’s office in the region around St. Petersburg.

She deals with coronavirus deaths almost daily, but said only about 20% of them have been attributed to COVID-19. In other cases, the virus was determined to be an underlying condition. “In the vast majority of cases, the pneumonia itself wouldn’t have led to death, had the underlying conditions not flared up to a point of becoming fatal,” she told The Associated Press.

Unlike Russia, some countries’ official death count includes those who had COVID-19 but died from other causes, said Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program. “It will be important that the Russian authorities review the way in which death certification is done to reassure themselves that they are accurately certifying deaths in the appropriate way,” he said.

Death counts vary around the world because countries underreported the number of COVID-19 deaths early on, said Ali Mokdad, professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. They ascribed virus deaths to other causes due to insufficient testing or initially only counted deaths in hospitals, he added.

Some countries also are overcounting by including “presumptive deaths” — those who likely died of COVID-19 but were never tested for it, Mokdad said. What sets Russia apart, however, is a habit of obscuring embarrassing truths, said Judy Twigg, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The way mortality data is recorded in Russia is affected by a Soviet-era tradition of setting future targets for improving public health through efforts to reduce mortality from certain reasons, such as alcoholism or tuberculosis.

Health officials “shift the way they code causes of death in order to try to meet those targets,” Twigg said. Pathologists told AP there is pressure from hospital administrators to produce better-looking reports.

Requests and instructions to obscure certain causes of death in postmortems are “an inevitable part of our job,” said a pathologist in Siberia who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

Data analysts say inconsistencies in Russia’s virus statistics suggest manipulation, such as regions reporting similar numbers of new cases for several days in a row, or the number of deaths in regional reports differing from those in federal reports.

“I don’t trust official statistics, and I believe I have reasons not to,” Boris Ovchinnikov, director of the Moscow-based Data Insight research agency, told the AP. “But we don’t have any good alternative indicators for assessing the real situation.”

Among the anomalies:

— The governor of the Lipetsk region in southwestern Russia was recorded telling subordinates last month that “numbers need to be changed, otherwise our region will be judged poorly.”

— In the Altai region in southern Siberia, a task force posted a daily infection update containing the words “for approval” addressed to the provincial governor. It quickly erased the words after it was reported on social media.

— Unusual spikes in pneumonia deaths indicate possibility more virus deaths than officially reported by mid-May: St. Petersburg reported 694 pneumonia deaths, with 63 from coronavirus; the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan reported 657 pneumonia deaths and 29 from coronavirus.

“Without doubt, there have been manipulations with statistics on the regional level,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, an independent analyst and former Kremlin political consultant, adding that it seems they did it “on their own initiative.”

At the same time, he noted that a decrease in cases was a key factor for holding two big events on the Kremlin agenda that were postponed by the virus: a massive Red Square parade for the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II and a vote on constitutional amendments that could extend President Vladimir Putin’s rule until 2036.

Citing a slowdown in infections, Putin ordered the parade for June 24 and the vote for July 1. Most regions, including Moscow, also recently lifted tight lockdowns imposed in March even though daily numbers of new infections have remained high, hovering around 9,000.

In a bid to dispel claims of underreporting mortality, the government released updated statistics for April showing patients who died of other causes while testing positive for the virus, as well as those who tested negative but likely died of it.

If those were counted as coronavirus deaths, mortality would have been 60% higher than announced. Authorities insist they shouldn’t be included in the official toll, but even if all extra deaths recently reported by federal and Moscow officials were added, it would still be around 11,000.

Russian officials credit early quarantine measures and quick expansion of hospital capacity that prevented the health care system from being overwhelmed. They also cite more than 14 million tests that helped spot asymptomatic cases that account for more than 40% of all recent infections in the country of 146.7 million.

Officials noted that infections in Russia peaked later than in Europe, and deaths are now climbing more quickly. Experts say Russia’s statistical gaps may result from its outdated system of collecting mortality data: In many regions, a death certificate must be delivered by a relative to a local civil registry office. Many of those offices were closed or had limited hours due to coronavirus lockdowns.

“So what we’re seeing now is insufficient data in many regions,” said Alexei Raksha, an independent demographer. He said data from civil registries he studied showed that some regions reported fewer deaths in April than in previous years. Deaths were five times lower in the southern republic of Ingushetia, while in Krasnodar, they fell by about 1,500 from the monthly average, a record low.

“Some people just bury their relatives without going to the civil registration office,” Raksha said. Researchers expect most of these gaps to be filled in next year, when the Russian State Statistics Service issues its annual report.

Raksha said Russia’s few virus deaths could also be due to less-frequent travel across the vast country, its low population density and lower social mobility. He also said because the country has a much lower life expectancy than the West, it has fewer elderly targets for the virus.

Trump directs US to develop new Icebreaking fleet to counter Russia, China

Washington DC (Sputnik)

Jun 10, 2020

NATO member states have doubled their military activity in the northern polar region over the past five years, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Ambassador at Large for Arctic Cooperation Nikolay Korchunov said on 22 May.

The US government has been tasked with an inter-agency program to develop a new fleet of icebreakers to project American national interests in the Arctic and Antarctic regions as soon as possible, President Donald Trump has announced in a memorandum.

“The United States will develop and execute a polar security icebreaking fleet acquisition program that supports our national interests in the Arctic and Antarctic regions”, the memorandum to the secretaries of state, defense, homeland security, commerce, energy, as well as the Office of Management and Budget and national security adviser said.

According to the memo, the fleet will include “use cases in the Arctic that span the full range of national and economic security missions (including the facilitation of resource exploration and exploitation and undersea cable laying and maintenance) that may be executed by a class of medium PSCs, as well as analysis of how these use cases differ with respect to the anticipated use of heavy PSCs for these same activities”.

The new fleet must be equipped with “assets and resources, capable of ensuring a persistent United States presence in the Arctic and Antarctic regions in support of national interests and in furtherance of the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy”, the memorandum said.

The assets will include unmanned aviation; surface and undersea systems; space systems; sensors and other systems to achieve and maintain maritime domain awareness; command and control systems; secure communications and data transfer systems; and intelligence-collection systems, the memorandum said.

The assets will potentially have a defensive armament adequate to defend against threats by near-peer competitors and the potential for nuclear-powered propulsion, the memorandum added.

The memorandum comes after Russian Envoy at Large for Arctic Cooperation Nikolay Korchunov stated that NATO member states, as well as non-NATO countries, have become increasingly involved in military activity in the northern polar region in recent years.

On 1 May, the US Sixth Fleet conducted a joint naval anti-submarine warfare exercise with the United Kingdom in the Norwegian Sea. Four ships, a US submarine, and a Boeing P8-A reconnaissance aircraft participated in the drills.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: https://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Trump_directs_US_to_develop_new_Icebreaking_fleet_to_counter_Russia_China_999.html.

Turkey to buy additional S-400 missile defense system from Russia

by Ed Adamczyk

Washington DC (UPI)

Jun 10, 2020

Turkey will purchase an additional Russian-made S-400 air defense system, the head of Turkey’s Defense Industries Administration said.

“We have a basic agreement on the supply of the second batch of the Russian S-400 system, and there are some technical issues regarding transport operations,” Ismail Demir said in a television interview earlier this week. “Ankara is also interested in proposals to purchase Patriot and Eurosam air defense systems.”

A Turkish official said the sale would go on despite production and delivery issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Turkey received a loan from Russia to partially finance the $2.5 billion purchase of the S-400 system of ground-to-air armaments. An agreement was signed in December 2017 and the first “Triumf” missiles and missile launchers arrived in Turkey in July 2019.

The deal caused a crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations, with Washington demanding an end to the sale in exchange for the opportunity to purchase American Patriot systems.

The United States also threatened to delay or cancel the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey and impose sanctions, but Ankara did not yield to U.S. pressure.

The S-400 missile includes a command and control center capable of coordinating several battalions of troops, a radar detection system and ultra-long-range missiles.

Russia has said that the missiles are designed to destroy aircraft, and cruise and ballistic missiles. It can also be used against ground installations, and can engage targets up to 250 miles away or at an altitude of up to 18 miles.

Source: Space War.

Link: https://www.spacewar.com/reports/Turkey_to_buy_additional_S-400_missile_defense_system_from_Russia_999.html.

Siberian governor says leaked oil spilled into Arctic lake

June 09, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — Some of the 20,000 tons of diesel oil that leaked from a power plant has seeped into a fragile Arctic lake, the regional governor said Tuesday. Krasnoyarsk region Gov. Alexander Uss said that it wasn’t immediately possible to assess the damage to fish and other natural resources in Lake Pyasino.

Emergency workers have laid booms to block the fuel from getting into the lake from its tributary, the Ambarnaya River, but they have failed to stop the spill from spreading downstream. Uss voiced hope that emergency officials could contain the leak and prevent the spilled fuel from getting into a river fed by the lake that flows into the Kara Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean.

The fuel leaked when a storage tank at the power plant in Norilsk collapsed. Investigators said that that melting permafrost had likely caused the collapse. The regional governor harshly criticized local officials in Norilsk for what he described as a “clear disinformation” effort to downplay the leak.

The power plant is operated by a division of Norilsk Nickel, whose giant plants in the area have made Norilsk, 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles) northeast of Moscow, one of the most heavily polluted cities in the world.

The director of the power plant was charged Monday with violating environmental regulations. He could face up to five years in prison if convicted.

Russian Orthodox priest tends to Moscow’s COVID-19 patients

June 06, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — The Rev. Vasily Gelevan bends over a COVID-19 patient at her apartment to administer Holy Communion and say words of comfort while clad in a hazmat suit. The bedside ministry is one of many such visits the 45-year old Russian Orthodox priest makes daily as he shuttles across Moscow in a minivan to tend to people fighting the coronavirus at their homes or in hospital rooms.

Gelevan’s family at first wasn’t happy with his decision to come in close contact with those infected with the virus, but the father of five sees pastoral care as a responsibility he can’t refuse, especially during a pandemic.

“I put myself in their place,” he said. “For me, the visit of a priest giving Holy Communion would be the most desirable thing. It doesn’t matter that I wouldn’t see his face. I would hear his voice, he would come and embrace me, show his sympathy and bring me the most precious thing in the world — the Holy Communion!”

For several years before the coronavirus outbreak, the priest visited the gravely ill at Moscow hospitals. Then the coronavirus hit the Russian capital. “They called me and said that there is a lot of work to do, many people are sick, and there are few who are trained to overcome the stress and enter the red zone to offer help,” Gelevan said. “I felt that I must answer the call.”

Moscow has accounted for about half of the nation’s more than 449,000 confirmed cases, the world’s third-highest number after the United States and Brazil. Russia reported 5,520 virus-related deaths as of Friday.

Along with needing to reassure his family — “They told me that I was playing a hero,” Gelevan said — the priest had to cope with his own fear of exposure as the virus rapidly engulfed Russia. Gelevan recalled that the first time he went to first visit a COVID-19 patient, he was shocked to see cotton stuffed into the keyhole of the woman’s apartment door. He assumed it was put there to protect the neighbors from the virus. It turned out that the woman had blocked the keyhole long before to protect herself from the neighbor’s tobacco smoke.

“I often remember that keyhole,” the priest said. “I realized that the eyes of fear see danger everywhere.” Gelevan said he wears all the required gear to keep himself from becoming infected and takes other necessary precautions, but won’t allow fear to stand in the way of performing his clerical duties.

“You just need to find a middle way without falling into extremes — being panicky or going into COVID-19 denial,” he said. Gelevan serves as a priest at Moscow’s Church of the Annunciation of the Holy Virgin in Sokolniki, which was built by the Russian imperial army in 1906. During Soviet times, the church housed a military unit, and after the Russian Orthodox Church reclaimed it in the early 2000s it became the official church of the Russian airborne forces.

The church, like all churches in Russia, has been closed to parishioners since April 13 and is set to reopen on Saturday. In the recent times of illness and disruption, Gelevan sees a message to humankind to abandon its arrogance and correct its mistakes.

“We shall weep and then calm down, raise from our knees and go forward,” he said. “We will become simpler and more humane, filled with more love for ourselves and others and also the world around us.”

Putin signs Russia’s nuclear deterrent policy

June 02, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday endorsed Russia’s nuclear deterrent policy which allows him to use atomic weapons in response to a conventional strike targeting the nation’s critical government and military infrastructure.

By including a non-nuclear attack as a possible trigger for Russian nuclear retaliation, the document appears to send a warning signal to the U.S. The new expanded wording reflects Russian concerns about the development of prospective weapons that could give Washington the capability to knock out key military assets and government facilities without resorting to atomic weapons.

In line with Russian military doctrine, the new document reaffirms that the country could use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack or an aggression involving conventional weapons that “threatens the very existence of the state.”

But the policy document now also offers a detailed description of situations that could trigger the use of nuclear weapons. They include the use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction against Russia or its allies and an enemy attack with conventional weapons that threatens the country’s existence.

In addition to that, the document now states that Russia could use its nuclear arsenals if it gets “reliable information” about the launch of ballistic missiles targeting its territory or its allies and also in the case of ”enemy impact on critically important government or military facilities of the Russian Federation, the incapacitation of which could result in the failure of retaliatory action of nuclear forces.”

U.S.-Russia relations are at post-Cold War lows over the Ukrainian crisis, the accusations of Russian meddling in the U.S. 2016 presidential election and other differences. Last year, both Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The only U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control agreement still standing is the New START treaty, which was signed in 2010 by U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The pact limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.

Russia has offered to extend the New START, which expires in February 2021, while the Trump administration has pushed for a new arms control pact that would also include China. Moscow has described that idea as unfeasible, pointing at Beijing’s refusal to negotiate any deal that would reduce its much smaller nuclear arsenal.

In a call with members of his Security Council over the weekend, Putin warned that the New START treaty is bound to expire, but “the negotiations on that crucial issue, important not just for us but for the entire world, have failed to start.”

Finland in pain as border closure blocks Russian tourists

June 01, 2020

HELSINKI, Finland (AP) — Finns in the Nordic nation’s eastern border region say they haven’t seen anything like this since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The closure of Finland’s border with Russia amid the coronavirus pandemic has put an abrupt stop to visits by the nearly 2 million Russian tourists who prop up the local economy each year.

Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer (832-mile) land border with Russia complete with several crossing points in what is one of the European Union’s longest external borders. It was shut down both by Helsinki and Moscow in mid-March due to the pandemic.

Given Russia’s sustained infection rate, there is little hope that the border will be opened for Finland’s summer tourism season — and many believe the border will likely remain shut even longer. “It definitely has had a big effect. You just wouldn’t imagine such risks relate to the border anymore in the year 2020,” said Petteri Terho, spokesman for the Zsar Outlet Village, a large upscale shopping area catering to both Finns and Russians near the Vaalimaa border station, the busiest crossing point between the two nations.

The closure has caused cross-border tourism to the South Karelia region, entry point to Finland’s picturesque lake district that is a favorite of locals and Russian tourists alike, to collapse overnight.

Above all, it has deprived local businesses of an estimated 25 million euros ($28 million) for every month the border remains closed. Finland has seen 6,859 cases of COVID-19 and 320 deaths but most have been in and around Helsinki, the capital. But in the South Karelia region, 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of Helsinki, only 24 positive cases have been diagnosed, with no fatalities so far.

Russia has over 405,000 coronavirus infections, the third-highest number in the world. It has reported 4,693 virus deaths, a figure experts call a significant undercount of the true situation.

“This is a whole new situation for all of us,” said Katja Vehvilainen of the Imatra Region Development Company, a local Finnish business promotion agency, adding that the South Karelia region enjoyed a growth of 15% in tourism last year. “The corona situation has unfortunately completely changed the direction.”

Still, locals remain unfazed, given Finland’s long history of dealing with the ups and downs of Russian tourism in the wake of its neighbor’s political and economic upheavals. The last tourism crisis hitting South Karelia took place in 2014-2015 when the value of the Russian rouble plunged against the euro, instantly denting visits by Russians.

“It looks pretty bad now,” said Markku Heinonen, development manager for the city of Lappeenranta, the region’s biggest center with 73,000 residents. “But the previous crises (with Russian tourism) have taught companies to prepare for something like this.”

The region hosted 1.9 million foreign tourists last year, most coming from Russia for shopping daytrips or longer holidays to enjoy spas, restaurants and lakeside cottages in an area known for its pristine beauty.

Lappeenranta, a key center for wood products, has been dealing with Russia since it was founded in 1649. It’s just 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the border station of Nuijamaa. From there, it’s mere 180 kilometers (112 miles) to Russia’s second city of St. Petersburg, whose population of nearly 5.5 million equals the entire population of Finland.

“Our business has dried up almost completely. One can say it melted away in one day (after the border closure),” said Mohamad Darwich, who runs the Laplandia Market, a grocery store catering to Russian tourists near the Nuijamaa border post.

Darwich, who arrived in Finland from Russia in 1992 after studying in St. Petersburg, listed fresh fish, cheese and dishwashing liquid among the most popular items bought by Russian visitors. He has reopened the store now for locals and hopes the border will be reopened by October at the latest “under an optimistic scenario.”

Citing a recent study, Heinonen said if the border stays closed until the end of the year or even beyond — a worst-case scenario — the South Karelia region is estimated to lose at least 225 million euros ($247 million) in tourism income this year and risks losing about 900 jobs, a large number in this region.

Locals are now eyeing domestic or European visitors as possible substitutes for the missing Russians this year. Ryanair, which suspended its European routes from Lappeenranta until further notice due to the pandemic, has indicated it’s ready to resume some flights in July, which could bring in western European tourists. But even the Irish airline has largely catered to Russian clients living near the Finnish border who used the Lappeenranta airport.

“There are plenty of summer cottages in the area and holidaying Finns around, so domestic travel is absolutely crucial for us,” said Terho, the Zsar Outlet Village spokesman. He said the venue reopened Saturday with high hopes following the Finnish government’s gradual relaxation of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

‘We’re expendable’: Russian doctors face hostility, mistrust

May 21, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — There are no daily public displays of gratitude for Russian doctors and nurses during the coronavirus crisis like there are in the West. Instead of applause, they face mistrust, low pay and even open hostility.

Residents near the National Medical Research Center for Endocrinology, a Moscow hospital now treating virus patients, complained when they saw medical workers walking out of the building in full protective gear, fearing the workers would spread contagion.

“Maybe once the disease knocks on the door of every family, then the attitude to medics will change,” said Dr. Alexander Gadzyra, a surgeon who works exhausting shifts. The outbreak has put enormous pressure on Russia’s medical community. While state media hails some of them as heroes, doctors and nurses interviewed by The Associated Press say they are fighting both the virus and a system that fails to support them.

They have decried shortages of protective equipment, and many say they have been threatened with dismissal or even prosecution for going public with their complaints. Some have quit and a few are suspected to have killed themselves.

Government officials insist the shortages are isolated and not widespread. Antipathy toward the medical profession is widespread in Russia, said social anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova, who studies social media posts peddling virus conspiracy theories. More than 100 theories she studied say doctors diagnose COVID-19 cases so they can get more money; others say they help the government cover up the outbreak.

“It’s a crisis of trust that the epidemic underscored,” she said. “I haven’t seen this attitude anywhere else.” Trust in government institutions has always been low in Russia, according to opinion polls, and most of its hospitals are state-run.

Russia is struggling in the pandemic, with over 300,000 infections and 2,972 deaths. The government has disputed critics who have questioned the relatively low number of fatalities. Official statements and news reports in more than 70 Russian regions show that at least 9,479 medical workers have been infected with the virus in the past month, and more than 70 have died. Health care workers believe the death toll to be much higher and they have compiled a list of more than 250.

Dr. Irina Vaskyanina said at least 40 workers are infected at a hospital in Reutov, outside Moscow, where she headed a department handling blood transfusions. She also said insults and threats from superiors became common after she complained about working conditions to her bosses, to law enforcement and even to President Vladimir Putin.

“I handed in my notice,” Vaskyanina said. “They’re not letting me do my job. I love my job and I want to keep doing it, but I can’t go on like this.” She said 13 of her 14 colleagues have also quit. Dr. Tatyana Revva, an intensive care specialist in the town of Kalach-on-Don, was summoned by police for questioning and slapped with disciplinary action after recording a video about equipment shortages. The hospital’s head reported her to a prosecutor for “spreading false information” — an offense punishable by fines of up to $25,000 or a prison term.

“I am one reprimand away from being fired,” Revva told AP. Dr. Oleg Kumeiko, head of Revva’s hospital, rejected the claims. He told the AP there were no shortages of protective equipment in the hospital, and said he had no intention of firing Revva. Disciplinary action against her was justified, he said, and “had nothing to do with her public activity.”

“I don’t understand why they treat us like we’re expendable,” said Nina Rogova, a nurse in the Vladimir region 200 kilometers (120 miles) east of Moscow. She is recovering from the virus after getting it at work and she says she is being threatened with dismissal after she told local media about a lack of protective gear.

Doctors in the southern region of Chechnya who complained about equipment shortages later had to retract their statements as a “mistake” and apologize on TV. The predominantly Muslim region’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has a reputation for stifling dissent, and he has demanded they be fired.

Adding to the frustration is pay. Health workers say they haven’t gotten bonuses the government promised them for working with coronavirus patients. In early April, Putin personally promised generous bonuses to monthly salaries — about $1,100 for doctors, $680 for nurses and paramedics, and $340 for orderlies.

A month later, social media was filled with photos of pay slips reflecting bonuses from 10 to 100 times smaller than promised. Dr. Yevgeniya Bogatyryova, a Moscow-area paramedic, told AP the April bonuses varied from $2 to $120. “They’re calculating the time ambulance doctors spend with a coronavirus patient and pay by the hour, apparently,” Bogatyryova said.

More than 110,000 people signed an online petition demanding the government keep its promise. Dozens of paramedics protested in the Nizhny Novgorod region 400 kilometers (240 miles) east of Moscow, and scores more from Siberia to southern Russia made videos demanding the bonuses.

“Whoever we ask in our management, our superiors, they say, ‘Putin promised you (bonuses), so Putin should pay you,’” Natalia Salomatova, an orderly at a hospital in the Siberian city of Chita, told the AP. April bonuses for her colleagues ranged from the equivalent of 41 cents to $6.86. Salomatova herself didn’t receive any.

Only after Putin went on TV twice last week and angrily demanded that officials pay what was promised did medical workers in some regions start getting the payments. “Makes you wonder: Who should we protect the medics from, the infection or the administrators?” said Arkhipova, the social anthropologist.

Russia’s Health Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Reports of health care workers resigning are surfacing. Over 300 quit in the western Kaliningrad region two weeks ago, dozens of paramedics reportedly resigned in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk in May and 40 workers gave notice at a hospital in the Vladimir region.

That could further cripple Russia’s health care system, already impaired by a widely criticized reform that closed half of its 10,000 hospitals in 20 years, with thousands of layoffs. In December, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova called the reform “horrible” and said it significantly affected the quality and the accessibility of health care.

“Now we’re facing the threat of a complete destruction of the medical community,” said Semyon Galperin, head of the Doctors Defense League rights group.

Irina Trofimova in Chita, Russia, contributed.

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