Vasiliy Vlassov on the heatwave in Russia

Vasiliy VlassovThe hot weather in central Russia this year has been unprecedented. It has been the hottest summer since records began in 1890, and as a result hundreds of forest fires have swept across woodland areas. Moscow, the most visible part of the country to the outside world, has been covered in a blanket of smog for some weeks. In reality, the forest fires are no more widespread this year than they were in 2009. Statistics show that in July 2009 the area of forest fires was about twice as big as this year. The difference? A year ago it was the forests in Eastern Russia that were burning. They are far away from Moscow and therefore out of the public eye.

Vladimir Putin signed a new forest code into law in 2007, whilst he was the President of Russia. This law got rid of the traditional state regulation of the use of the forests and weakened fire prevention efforts in woodland areas. This was done to give a free rein for new landlords. People have been trying to defend the forests as best as possible from development, but to no avail, for example, a new road was built from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, through the forest surrounding the outskirts of Moscow. It was approved by Vladimir Putin personally. The group that defended the forest was attacked by militia and “unknown” gangs many times. Today the defenders are on hunger strike near the Prime Minister’s office building.

The Russian government has taken a Soviet-Orwellian approach. Any problem is covered up for as long as possible. It took the same approach in late 2008 when Russia was internationally declared “the island of quietness in the world crisis.” This summer Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as well the emergencies minister Sergey Shoygu, are doing everything to show that nothing serious is going on, and all these fires are under control. Of course, many people do not trust them, and last week thousands of Muscovites used and other resources on the web to help locate the villages suffering most from the forest fires. People delivered clothing, cutlery, and other goods for villagers as well as respirators and even equipment for fire fighters. It has been the most encouraging experience of the last few days. During this time Vladimir Putin used the tragedy to improve his image. He co-piloted a huge water-delivering airplane, which was the number one headline on all the national news channels.

Meanwhile, the Mayor of Moscow has been away on a long holiday and has not returned. He recently explained that dealing with the fires does not constitute Moscow city business, and it is not a reason for him to cut his holiday short. After a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin, who visited the villages affected by the forest fires, President Medvedev even announced that he was leaving Moscow for a holiday by the Black Sea. However the next day, the President’s press service explained that he was misunderstood. A couple of days later the President told TV channels that many of the heads of administration of Russian regions, which are affected by the forest fires, were on holiday. He declared that forestry service chiefs who had failed to return to work from holiday in spite of the fires should be sacked. The same day he fired a group of Navy commanding officers because the Navy base was destroyed by the fire near Moscow.

The impact that the fires are having on the health of Moscow citizens is obvious. Over the last few weeks journalists have been trying to get data from anonymous interviews with physicians and undertakers. They found out that death rates have doubled, and even tripled, and there has been an enormous increase in the demand for the hospital care. However state officials denied any problems. Some physicians and even the minister of health (who is an accountant by education) distributed frivolous advice to Muscovites, for example, using wet medical face masks to protect from the smoke, not ventilating apartments to stop the smoke getting inside, or to sew thick hand made masks and so on. In general, it is understandable that everyone is unprepared for this problem: in Russia cold is usually the major problem, not heat.

Only yesterday the head of the Moscow city health care department said that mortality in “these weeks” has doubled compared to last year. In a couple of hours press agencies distributed an angry statement from Russia’s minister of health. She asked the Moscow health care office for an explanation of how it is possible that mortality reduced during January-June, but increased sharply in July? This strange question has no answer, of course. But yesterday the official data on mortality registration was also published. You can see graphs here: (link to Russian website). The temperature records are available on the Russian meteorology site. You can see that in early July the heatwave was not so bad. But the start of August was very hot and 12 million Muscovites are suffering the effects of the heat and smoke. So, the death toll may be very high in August. I would not be surprised if the Russian government tries to fiddle with statistics, e.g. distributing the number of deaths over August and September to hide the problem. Similar things have happened many times in Moscow, as it has in Beijing, or any other authoritarian country where the government is trying to beautify the image of a troubled country to the outside world.

Vasiliy Vlassov is a Professor of Medical Sciences at the Moscow Medical Academy. His research interests are in epidemiology, evaluation of diagnostic tests, public health, and especially health care delivery with scarce resources. He is the co-founder and current president of the Russian Society for Evidence Based Medicine.