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Official COVID-19 Death Tally In Russia's Dagestan Masks 'Catastrophe,' Residents Say

Russian Emergency Situations Ministry employees carry out the disinfection of a mosque in Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital.
Russian Emergency Situations Ministry employees carry out the disinfection of a mosque in Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital.

The Kremlin is racing to put down a health crisis in the southern republic of Dagestan, where a surge in recent deaths unattributed to the coronavirus is again raising questions about the severity of the outbreak and how Russia tallies its COVID-19 dead.

National attention fell on Dagestan, a majority-Muslim republic of nearly 3 million people, after local video blogger Ruslan Kurbanov interviewed the republic's health minister, Dzhamaludin Gadzhiibragimov, last weekend on his YouTube channel.

"Can you tell us how many have been infected and how many have died? Kurbanov asked.

Gadzhiibragimov's answer: Twenty-nine deaths from COVID-19 among 13,000 infections. But 657 people, he added, had died from "community-acquired pneumonia." He also said more than 40 health workers had died while on duty.

The announcement grabbed headlines in Moscow but merely reinforced what Dagestanis already knew, local activists said.

"It wasn't a sensation at all," said Ziautdin Uvaisov of Patient Monitor, a Dagestan-based aid organization. "People could see the dead piling up, and it long ago became clear the official statistics have no basis in reality."

Indeed, medical figures in the republic have been sounding the alarm since mid-April. And this week, another key figure joined in the call for help.

Dagestan's most famous celebrity, mixed martial arts champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, went public about the virus's toll on his family.

"It's a very difficult situation. I personally have over 20 relatives ... who were in intensive care. Many of them are not with us anymore. Many of my acquaintances are dead," Nurmagomedov said this week in an Instagram video, which garnered more than 4 million views. His father was reportedly evacuated to a hospital in Moscow and is in a medically induced coma.

Amid a growing public uproar, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been forced to intervene.

In a video conference between Putin and local leaders this week, Dagestan's top cleric, Mufti Ahmad Abdulaev, described the local response to the virus as a "catastrophe" and appealed for help.

Putin dispatched army medical teams and representatives of Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry to help stem Dagestan's outbreak with "urgent measures." But the Russian leader also laid blame on Dagestanis for gathering in crowds and later not seeking urgent medical care in time.

"It's true people were slow to believe about the virus, but that's because state television was telling them it wasn't serious. It was nothing worse than the average flu," said Magomed Magomedov, deputy editor of the independent Chernoviknewspaper in the capital, Makhachkala. "But that doesn't explain why the hospitals didn't have what they needed."

As the republic's medical workers complained about a lack of protective equipment, Dagestani residents and businesses crowdfunded to help fill the need.

"The Kremlin help is good, but it's a little too late," said Uvaisov of Patient Monitor.

A new test perhaps will come with Eid al-Fitr celebrations marking the end of Ramadan this weekend. Authorities are urging people to stay home.

With more than 326,000 cases, Russia has surged to second in the global coronavirus infections count, after the United States. But media organizations have unearthed evidence of the government underreporting COVID-19 deaths — now officially at 3,249, according to data compiled by John Hopkins University.

Russian health experts have defended their death count, insisting they reflect a more thorough postmortem assessment than those used elsewhere.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.