Cover up in Russia, the Sick Man of Europe

From the Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2009:

A top Russian virologist’s charge that health authorities are drastically understating the number of cases of H1N1, or swine, flu — a claim that senior health officials fiercely rejected — has raised questions about Russia’s claims to be relatively unaffected by the pandemic.

The controversy started late Sunday, when state television carried an interview with Dmitry Lvov, head of the government’s Institute of Virology, who reported what he said was Russia’s first death from H1N1 influenza, saying his institute had tested a sample from the victim.

Dr. Lvov, one of the country’s most prominent health specialists, also said there were “tens of thousands” of H1N1 cases in Russia, far more than the 381 the government officially reports.

Top officials have strongly rejected both claims. Public-health chief Gennady Onishchenko accused Dr. Lvov of an “informational terrorist act,” according to the official ITAR-Tass news agency. Authorities published detailed information about the death Dr. Lvov referred to, arguing that the patient died of pneumonia and other underlying health conditions, not H1N1.

But the storm has continued, as Dr. Lvov has stuck by his charges and other specialists too have cast doubt on the official figures.

A doctor answering a swine-flu hotline at the state-run Influenza Institute in St. Petersburg this week said, “There have been lethal cases of this flu in Russia. It couldn’t be otherwise; we’re not isolated from the world.” Officially, Russia is one of the few countries left in the world without a single H1N1 death.

Although it is difficult to be sure what is going on in Russia, it does seem unlikely that there are only 381 cases of pandemic flu and no deaths. The fact that Academician Lvov is making the accusation is telling. He has a lot to lose by revealing this information and nothing to gain.

Lying about the number of cases and deaths a country has may be tempting from a very short term economic standpoint, but it is potentially devastating to the same country just a few months out. If people have a false sense of security, they will not take precautions to avoid infection. Further, critical industries will not spend the necessary money to ensure continued operation in the middle of a challenging pandemic.

Much of Russia’s infrastructure is inherited from the Soviet Union and is in poor repair. High rates of absenteeism due to illness or death would compound what is already a desperate situation. Failure of key industries during the Russian winter, especially those related to heating, could kill far more than the virus itself.

Russia’s problems are also Europe’s problems. As the major supplier of energy to many countries in Eastern and Central Europe, interruption of fuel, particularly gas, would create extreme difficulties for these countries.

Although Turkey was the original “Sick Man of Europe”, many observers now assign that title to Russia. Recent leaders have been backward-looking and paranoic. The old Soviet reflexes to deny bad news seem to have re-awakened with this pandemic. Russia may soon be a truly Sick Country, with essential workers collapsing on the job. If this happens, the Sickness may spread to unsuspecting countries in Europe via their dependence on Russian energy.

European countries have a strong interest in finding out what is happening in Russia and making sure that Russian infrastructure does not collapse. The lives they save may their own.

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