Free hotels a haven for Moscow doctors fighting virus

Moscow (AFP) –


After working 24-hour shifts at a clinic for coronavirus patients, intensive care doctor Yevgeny Baliner returns exhausted to his Moscow hotel room.

"When I get back, I eat breakfast, collapse and sleep practically all day," Baliner says, sitting on the bed of a hotel where he and dozens of other Russian medical workers are staying between stints at hospitals and clinics.

It's a simple mid-range business hotel room, but it's become his haven, the 37-year-old says. When he wakes up he watches films and studies Spanish before heading back to the clinic for another shift.

A few weeks ago, Baliner was a plastic surgeon, but "beauty can wait," he says, as the coronavirus pandemic hits Russia hard.

A few weeks behind the United States and western Europe, Russia is now seeing a steady increase in its number of coronavirus infections, with cases topping 100,000 this week and even Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin testing positive.

Its reported death toll -- 1,169 fatalities as of Friday -- is relatively low for a country of its size.

Critics have raised doubts about the number, though officials credit quick moves to close borders, testing and tracking of infections and an expansion of medical services that have roped in doctors like Baliner.

About 400 medical workers are being housed and fed free of charge alongside Baliner in two Moscow hotels belonging to Safmar, an industrial and financial group owned by Mikhail Gutseriyev, one of Russia's 50 richest people.

Hotel staff greet them wearing gloves and plastic face shields, as doctors and nurses sit together in reception wearing surgical masks.

The rooms are disinfected after every stay and the ventilation at the hotels has been cut off to limit the possible spread of infectious particles.

Staying in the hotels is convenient, especially for those who live outside the city, but also a way to protect their families and others from potential infection, the medical workers say.

- 'For my family's safety' -

"They do the cleaning, bring us food, I don't need to think about it... It's also for the safety of my family and loved ones who could be infected," says Baliner, who has a young son.

Hotels across Moscow -- including some of the best in the city -- are taking part in a scheme to provide medical workers with free accommodation during the crisis.

Some 5,200 workers are being housed under the project, the city tourism agency told news agency TASS.

At the same hotel as Baliner, physician assistant Alexei Manikin says dealing with the outbreak has been extremely difficult.

"There is death there but you try to push this idea out of your head," says the 34-year-old father of three.

Morning and night, grim-faced workers board buses hired to take them to their shifts.

Russian medical workers have been hit hard by the pandemic, with many complaining of a lack of protective equipment, especially outside Moscow. A database set up by Russian doctors lists more than 70 medics dead from the coronavirus.

Intensive care doctor Orkhan Rustamov, 29, is staying at the hotel after travelling to Moscow from the Arctic industrial city of Norilsk, where he was employed in a public hospital, to work in a private clinic.

Resting between two 24-hour shifts, he says the work is exhausting.

"No one is lacking for work (in the clinic)," he says. "There are a lot of sick people. The ICUs fill up and new ones open."