COVID Second Wave in Siberia: “Who By Fire”

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You know it’s COVID when you see usually two people in hazmat suits up front (photo Ria.ru)

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of may
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?
Leonard Cohen

The second wave of COVID 19 in Siberia is a whole other beast than what came before. That can be said about anywhere in Russia with the addition of the slight dread here that this time winter, not summer, is around the corner. The first wave was all about numbers and rumors that some relative of someone you know had it. I was even excited at the chance to get a first-hand account when the mother of my daughter’s friend. She came down to breath the fresh Altai air after 2 months of recovery from a harrowing experience with COVID.

The second wave is hitting everywhere and everyone. Yellow critical care ambulances with two hazmat suited aliens in the front seat pass by almost every time you are on the Chuyskiy Trakt highway. There are plenty of numbers, but this time the dimensions of what is happening is captured by personal stories and loss. I run into someone and they tell a story, “a driver in our office died last week, mid 40s”, I look at Facebook and among my friends in big cities, a local deputy, a sociology professor, and a civil society development leader, provide detailed descriptions of their thank God no hospital, but very challenging bouts with COVID.

The Altai Republic is noted in equal parts for its poverty and beauty. With a population of 200,000 it was the first wave envy of all as the last of 85 regions to register a case. This summer, the Republic became THE vacation destination since Europe, North America etc. were not accessible. Today, second wave Altai is number one for infections per 100,000 with 4,895.4, Moscow follows with 4,566.5. By the end of October, students from the medical college were accelerating their practical education by being placed in clinics to help. On November 3, Governor Khorokhordin became a stat posting a video on Instagram with the news. Sprinkled among the well wishes for a speedy recovery were epic tales of trying to get the necessary tests and medicine. A week later, it was announced that a team of medical specialists was being flown in from Moscow.

The polyclinic in my village of Manjerok is down to an occasional feldsher as most medical personal have been drafted into COVID service. Equipment too. That meant the loss of one of our great perks, an ambulance base. This news came via the old fashioned social network of gossip and rumor passed from one neighbor to another that continues to serve as the primary news source. In response, some villagers gathered signatures to request the ambulance return it’s base of service to here. The petition included an example of a 49 year old woman who died from a stroke because the ambulance couldn’t get to her fast enough. I had already heard this several times.

When a man came by for my signature, I asked who died? He said he didn’t know her name but she used to be the Head of the House of Culture. I knew immediately, it was Tanya. In spite of a life with even more knocks than most in a village filled with hard luck stories, Tanya inspired me with her relentless goodness and optimism. Her sister told me she did not die because the ambulance didn’t come, it was too sudden for that. We will never know if the stroke that took her life was COVID related or not, no testing was done.

Several days later we had to go back to Akademgorodok, the science center of Novosibirsk, to look after my husband’s elderly parents because their home health aid had to quarantine. By the time we got there she was in the hospital. That week friends called asking for money to pay for the funerals of two 49 year old men. 25 kilometers away is Vector, a virology and biotechnology center. During the Cold War it was involved in biological weapons research. Today, it is busy conducting final stage trials for EpiVacCorona, the second vaccine to be registered in Russia. They are planning to distribute 5,000,000 doses next year. It is made from synthetic elements so it will not require the freezer capacity necessary for live virus based vaccines.

Elsewhere, people are busy mobilizing to support each other with social network groups to exchange COVID information and news and provide services. So far, this is an abnormally warm winter with very little snow. That means everything is a little bleaker since cold brings sunshine and more snow makes cross country skiing possible. Almost everyone wears masks and stores won’t serve you if you don’t, but social distancing is a more hopeless ask.There is an edge to people’s attitude in Akadem that does not exist in the Village. Still, village, suburb, or city, the idea of telling a relative or friend not to come home or over for the holiday is unthinkable.

Back in the village, I ran into Anna Ivanovna, the daughter of the former oldest woman in the Village. Her Mother died 4 months way from her 108th birthday in 2007. I asked if her family was healthy. She said, “Yes, but the 70 year old brother-in-law of a woman who works in the drug store died.” When I asked if it was COVID she responded, “Pneumonia, but the hospitals were all filled with COVID so there was nowhere for him to go.” As we stood by a new pole placed to bring high speed Internet to the Village, she went on to say her Mother, who was illiterate but “knew things”, would not be surprised by the pandemia. Not long before she died she predicted, “When everything is all covered in wires, and everyone knows everything about everyone, there will be an illness”. Her daughter smiled and added, “We lived through the previous plague, this will end.”

End yes, but be over? Never for some people. A recent widow posted “Funeral Blues” by W.H. Auden, one of her husband’s favorite poems.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

Then added, “There is only one line that is incorrect, instead of “love” would last forever, it is “life”. Love isn’t going anywhere, I will remember and love. Forever.”

Has lived in Siberia since 1992. Was a community development activist for 20 years. Currently, focuses on research and writing.

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