Alexander Komarov, a patient in one of the Moscow hospital’s temporary wards, can’t hold back tears as he talks about his fear of dying from the coronavirus.
But as underfunded and understaffed Russian hospitals in regions beyond Moscow are struggling to cope with a new wave of virus patients, Komarov acknowledges he is lucky to receive treatment in the affluent capital.
“I’d rather be here than anywhere else, the staff are wonderful,” said the 62-year-old Moscow Metro employee, his face flushed with fever.
Komarov has been receiving treatment for a week in a makeshift ward with 550 beds in an exhibition center in Sokolniki Park, north-east of Moscow.
With ambulances carrying around 80 patients every day, the center is nearing full capacity.
But its 350 healthcare workers are well trained and have access to protective equipment, chest scan X-ray machines and mobile laboratories. Each patient wears a QR code on their wrist which provides instant access to their medical history.
Authorities have set up five temporary coronavirus wards to relieve pressure on the health system in Moscow, a city of over 12 million.
“Let’s take the hit so that the city hospitals are no longer overwhelmed,” said Maxim Naumenko, a 40-year-old doctor dressed in full protective clothing.
He said he was recruited to run the Sokolniki center due to his experience dealing with trauma during bombing and other attacks in the city in the early 2000s.
The country has the fourth highest number of virus cases in the world with over 1.83 million registered infections and over 31,500 deaths.
Russia reported a much lower viral death rate than other severely affected countries, and Kremlin critics accused the government of attempting to downplay the severity of the pandemic.
Demographics for March-September show an excess of over 117,000 deaths year-over-year, suggesting that the actual death toll could be much higher.
But as countries in Western Europe and beyond are reintroducing restrictions, including lockdowns to fight the second wave of coronavirus, Moscow has so far refused to impose a new quarantine.
The country imposed one of the most restrictive lockdowns during the peak of the first wave of the pandemic from March to May, and authorities recently introduced a number of new measures to alleviate the effects of the epidemic without further weakening the economy.
President Vladimir Putin has ruled out a new quarantine.
“Despite a difficult epidemiological situation, we are much better prepared,” he said in late October.
The government is also pinning its hopes on two Russian vaccines that are in their final stages of testing.
Bodies piling up in the morgue
While Moscow remains the epicenter of the epidemic, the regions now account for around three-quarters of the country’s overall workload compared to just under the middle of spring.
In several regions, particularly Siberia, doctors and patients have reported extreme pressure on the emergency services.
In late October, a video that was later confirmed by authorities showed bodies piled up in a morgue in the Altai region.
In a small hospital in the far north, a nurse who asked for her last name to be hidden said she had to regularly care for about 30 coronavirus patients alone.
But, Nurse Alexandra said, she could only use one breathing mask per day.
“One of my colleagues left on his first day. He said he couldn’t work in this hell,” he told AFP.
Worried that the situation could worsen further, many health workers are moving to Moscow or the second city of St. Petersburg, which offer better wages and working conditions in viral units.
The chief physician of Moscow’s Inozemtsev hospital, Alexander Mitichkin, hired around 300 health workers from all over the country.
“Some will stay here after the outbreak because we all need the best specialists,” he said.