|April 29, 2020|
The coronavirus is spreading in the Russian Arctic
|Talk of a coronavirus quarantine in Belokamenka, a Russian village on a remote bay in the Barents Sea, began to leak out in early April. Since 2017, tens of thousands of construction workers from across the country---and also from China, Turkey, and Central Asia---have been travelling in and out of the village to build a supply facility for a twenty-one-billion-dollar liquid-natural-gas project run by Novatek, one of Russia's largest privately held energy companies.|
Early this month, several workers posted on social media about how, after arriving in the village, they were placed in mandatory quarantine, presumably so that the infected among them would not inadvertently spread the virus at the sprawling construction site. For many, the quarantine only lasted four or five days, instead of two weeks, as is recommended by most health officials---and those newly arrived workers lived in tightly packed dormitories and ate together in a crowded dining hall. Videos posted on social media showed lines of hundreds of people waiting to pass through checkpoints or be tested for the virus.
Within several days, dozens of workers at the Belokamenka site tested positive for covid-19. By mid-April, that number grew to more than two hundred; the local administration declared a state of emergency, and medics from the federal emergencies ministry arrived to build a field hospital in a snow-covered spot near the construction site. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who has taken a conspicuously hands-off approach to the country's coronavirus response, letting ministers and regional leaders take responsibility---or rather, blame---for it, criticized the situation. "The word 'sloppiness' was used," according to Novaya Gazeta, a respected independent paper, which reported on Putin's remarks about the response during a meeting with regional officials.
The main construction firm operating at Belokamenka said in a press release that it "continues to carry out comprehensive anti-epidemic and preventive measures." When I reached several workers at the Belokamenka site, they said that even as infections spread not much changed. Those who tested positive were isolated in separate dormitories, but, for those who remained on the "green," or would-be "healthy," side of the six-hundred-acre site, the rhythm of work and life continued as before. Laborers were driven to their work sites on crowded minibuses, stood in long lines for up to an hour at the canteen, and returned home to dorm rooms that house six people each. Medical personnel supposedly took workers' temperatures regularly, but, as one laborer told me, if you worked the night shift you were not likely to be checked at all. No masks, gloves, or antiseptics were provided, and the bosses didn't offer much in the way of information.
"Everything is being kept closed and secret," one man told me. "So there's no panic, I guess." One thing was obvious, though. "The more of us there are crammed together, the more infections there will be," he said. As of Monday, there were eight hundred and sixty-seven officially registered cases of covid-19 in Belokamenka---more than in most entire Russian regions. The BBC Russian Service declared the village "the largest recorded outbreak in Russia."
In mid- and late March, as the coronavirus was beginning to tear through Europe and the United States, Russia reported a curiously low rate of infection. I wrote an article on March 25th, when Russia had fewer than five hundred confirmed cases, asking whether, thanks to a mixture of luck and some early measures, Russia would be spared the worst of the covid-19 pandemic. A month later, the answer seems to be no.
Russia now has more than ninety thousand reported cases of the virus, with a curve that is still growing steadily upward; the pace of new infections is the second highest in the world, behind only the United States. (Russia's growth rate has slowed some in recent days, settling at seven per cent per day.) Just more than half of those cases are in Moscow, a logical epicenter, given its extensive global connections and urban density. In the provinces, infection clusters have broken out in hospitals, nursing homes, and church congregations---a tragically similar pattern to those found throughout Europe. But one particularity of the virus in Russia has been its spread in remote settlements above the Arctic Circle, in places such as Belokamenka---forbidding outposts that exist to service the country's lucrative oil-and-gas industry. Otherwise cut off from the rest of the world by geography and climate, they are connected to the rest of Russia and beyond through their ever-rotating workforces---which, in the time of a global pandemic, serve as a dangerously efficient vector for spreading the virus.
In recent weeks, a number of far-flung oil and gas fields across Siberia and Yakutia---a Russian republic that is five times the size of France---have been hit by their own localized covid-19 outbreaks. Dozens of people have tested positive for the coronavirus at the Chayanda natural-gas field in Yakutia, which provides most of the gas for the Power of Siberia pipeline, the cornerstone of a four-hundred-billion-dollar energy deal that Russia signed with China, in 2014. On Monday evening, hundreds of workers gathered in an angry protest against conditions at the site; a video of the demonstration appeared online. In it, one worker yells, from the crowd, "What are we, pigs?" Another says, "Where is the quarantine? Where are the masks? There is nothing! They've crammed us all into dormitories, where we're infected with who knows what." The governor of Yakutia announced that all ten thousand workers at the Chayanda field have since been tested, and, although the results are not ready yet, "the number of sick people there is significant."
Another hot spot is Sabetta, a port on the Kara Sea, which serves as a transport hub for liquified natural gas (L.N.G.) from the Yamal Peninsula, a four-hundred-mile stretch of permafrost jutting into the Arctic Ocean. In 2017, Putin himself launched the Yamal L.N.G. project, with great fanfare. Last year, it exported eighteen and a half million tons of L.N.G. on ice-breaking tankers.
In late March, given the growing threat of the coronavirus, the regional governor, Dmitry Artyukhov, said that energy companies in the territory should keep their current work brigades in place and not introduce any new rotations until the summer. But many firms ignored him. "No one took him seriously," Stanislav Gurbin, the editor of YamalPro, an independent news portal covering the region, told me. "In Yamal, everyone knows the governor is put in his job so as to do everything to facilitate the activities of oil and gas companies, and certainly not to get in their way." Moreover, Gurbin added, a massive project like Yamal L.N.G. is carried out by dozens of contractors and subcontractors. The largest firms, like Gazprom and Novatek, can afford to cease operations for a while, but, for the smaller players, the cost of a cancelled helicopter or plane charter, booked months in advance, could be ruinous.
In late March, a new contingent of workers---several hundred people---passed through the Sabetta airport. Chaos ensued: some newly arriving crews were put under mandatory quarantine before being let into the general population; others were sent to work right away. "It all started from there," one worker at the Yamal L.N.G. site told me. Two weeks later, in mid-April, a handful of people reported fevers and other common covid-19 symptoms. As at Belokamenka, the Yamal bosses said little, even as the first suspected coronavirus patients went to hospitals in nearby cities. As of Tuesday, more than a hundred and thirty workers from the site have tested positive for covid-19. The regional governor has taken to announcing new infections in broad geographic terms, rather than linking them to particular oil and gas fields. "Why?" Gurbin, the editor, asked. "What are they afraid of?" He went on to answer his own question: "Our bureaucrats have the habit of keeping bad news quiet, not calling things by their names."
Throughout April, few covid-19 tests have been available at the work site. The employee who spoke to me said that medical staff only checked people's temperatures if they complained to them directly about feeling unwell. Hand sanitizer was only available in the restrooms. "In general, there were essentially no good and competent measures" to slow the spread of the virus, the worker said. A number of employees called the regional coronavirus hotline, set up by the governor's office, to complain about the conditions, but they didn't hear anything back. "The attitude was beastly," the worker told me.
Some workers with covid-19 were brought to hospitals in Novy Urengoy and Salekhard, the closest regional centers. (On Monday, the regional governor addressed the spike in cases at the Yamal L.N.G. site. "The situation there is generally stable. We don't see a surge in serious patients," he said.) Many laborers who were presumed healthy were evacuated entirely and are under a fourteen-day quarantine elsewhere in Russia. Nonetheless, there is reason to worry about the coronavirus spreading in the opposite direction: at first, the virus came to the Arctic from the "mainland," as the rest of Russia is known among locals and workers in the far north, and now it risks reëntering the general population through the country's Arctic hot spots. In late April, nearly two dozen workers from the Yamal L.N.G. site who returned home to Buryatia, a Russian republic near the border with China, tested positive for the virus. At Belokamenka, an evacuation flight last week---to take ostensibly uninfected workers to Yekaterinburg, a city in the Ural Mountains, nearly two thousand miles away---was cancelled at the last minute, after a number of would-be passengers tested positive.
At the Belokamenka construction site, as the weeks passed in April, the number of dormitory buildings repurposed to house those with covid-19 grew from one to five, out of eighteen total, according to a worker who came down with the virus earlier this month. He suspected that he became infected on his work site and then spread the virus to the five other men who shared his dorm room. "It's unavoidable," he told me. "We work together, live together, eat in the same cafeteria. One person gets sick and then everyone else down the line will, too." The situation has developed chaotically, with workers at the site often knowing little. "People are bewildered," one told me.
It's unclear, for example, whether the field hospital shown on state television with great fanfare is actually treating patients. Of the dozen or so workers at the site whom I spoke to, not one knew of anyone being taken there, or even exactly where it was located. "I imagine this hospital was a way for the regional administration to create a pretty picture for the federal authorities, to show Putin that they're busy doing something," Violetta Grudina, the head of the Murmansk office of Alexei Navalny, the country's leading opposition politician, said.
As the coronavirus has spread in the far north, both the companies managing the oil and gas sites and the regional administrations have been forced to go through the motions of a more coherent response. At the Yamal L.N.G. facility, the relative of a sick worker told me that his bosses finally told him that covid-19 testing would be available in the coming days, and that the local hospital was receiving new equipment, including ventilators. On Monday, nearly two thousand workers were tested. "At least something has started to happen," the relative said. "Before that, they were just lying there abandoned."
In recent days in Belokamenka, after sustained press attention and a growing number of social-media posts from workers, a commission from Rospotrebnadzor, a federal watchdog, inspected the site; soon after, one worker told me, employees were given masks and gloves. (But, as another worker said, those measures were merely "window dressing---after two days, no one is being giving anything.") I heard conflicting reports about testing: some said nearly everyone had been tested, but others told me that those waiting to be tested and presumed healthy were living in dormitories with others who had begun to show covid-19 symptoms. One told me that the border between the "red" and "green" zones---delineating where those with covid-19 are housed---had ceased to function some days ago, and "exists on paper only." Now, the worker said, "everyone is all mixed up together."
On Tuesday, I saw a list of those who tested positive in the latest round of testing at Belokamenka: eleven hundred and forty-five people, out of a work force of four or five thousand. And that is not including those who initially tested negative for the coronavirus weeks ago; they will be tested again in the coming days, which will presumably lead to a further dramatic spike in cases. "Everything is being done ass-backward. They simply can't keep up with these kinds of numbers," one worker told me.
The economic pressures faced by the thousands of workers left at places like Belokamenka and Sabetta are made all the more acute by a lack of top-down measures from the Kremlin. Russia will likely face a recession by the end of the year, and an unemployment rate of as much as fifteen per cent. Yet Putin and his ministers have not offered a wide-scale economic-relief program for the general population. On Sunday, Putin's spokesman said that the Kremlin would not "indulge populist sentiment" and needs to be "extremely prudent" in using the country's nearly six hundred billion dollars in financial reserves.
As the wife of one worker at Belokamenka told me, "No one has told us we can stop paying down our debt or the monthly communal charges for our apartment. So we should get the money from somewhere." Another laborer in Belokamenka, who has kept up his regular construction shifts, said, "A person needs work---even at the expense of his own health." Many simply want to go home, but that process is stalled by the need to first test the thousands of workers who remain at the site and determine how they can safely reënter their home regions. As one frustrated worker put it, "I don't want anything more to do with this virus cesspool."