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GERGEBIL, Dagestan — Nurmagomed Medzhidov is looking at his sister’s gravestone. “She sacrificed her life so that we could live,” he told VICE News.
The 44-year-old mother of four and X-ray technician was one of at least three healthcare workers who died of COVID-19 in the remote mountain village of Gergebil in the past few months, and her name, Aminat, is just one among hundreds on an unofficial “Memory List” of health-worker deaths in Russia.
In late May, Russian authorities said that only 101 health workers had died. Last week, the health surveillance agency updated the numbers to acknowledge that the figure is more than four times what they previously reported — 489 medics have died.
Nowhere is that discrepancy more clear than in the Gergebil district, where a 20-bed community hospital that normally sees elderly patients has been converted into a COVID ward. Along with its sister hospital, it has treated more than 325 patients since the outbreak began. At least 40 died. The medical staff are exhausted, often working with fevers, and in homemade personal protective equipment.
“If doctors were valued, then PPE should have been provided. It is easier to prevent the disease than to cure it,” said Dr. Shamil Gasanov, an acting chief doctor in Gergebil.
“I think there was a conspiracy, an unofficial directive. They told us there are no tests, COVID isn’t confirmed. Therefore you are not eligible for federal support.”
Dr. Gasanov thinks local officials purposely downplayed the prevalence of coronavirus in the region to prevent their reputations from being tarnished. This underreporting meant hospitals here didn’t get tests or basic medicine and equipment, even as the city of Moscow rolled out mass testing and built an entire hospital from scratch. Without confirmed cases, Dr. Gasanov’s staff didn’t receive coronavirus bonuses promised by President Vladimir Putin.
A lack of health infrastructure and poorly maintained roads played a significant role in Dagestan’s being ill-equipped to confront a pandemic. But a history of corruption and distrust in the government made things worse.
In May, Dagestan’s health minister, Dzhamaludin Gadzhiibragimov, admitted to a well-known blogger that the number of cases in the region were being underreported by the thousands. The interview created an outcry that prompted Putin to send the military into Dagestan and build a field hospital.
But for Dr. Gasanov, it was too little too late. “It was painful for us, difficult to handle — the pain and struggle of those patients,” he said. “It hurts, so much, when every second person is your friend or family. When you see people hurting and dying.”
Cover: Dr. Shamil Gasanov (right), the acting chief doctor at Gergebil Hospital, Kikuni Branch, treats Bogaddin Omarovic Magomedin, a COVID-19 patient (left). (VICE News Tonight/VICE TV)