Russia said on Thursday a 79-year-old woman with underlying health issues who tested positive for the new coronavirus had died from pneumonia, the country’s first confirmed death resulting from the virus.
Russia, which has temporarily barred entry to foreigners and imposed an array of flight restrictions, has reported 147 coronavirus cases so far, less than many other European countries.
That figure has risen sharply in recent days, however, but authorities have said the situation is under control and that most infected people have entered Russia from coronavirus hot spots.
Some doctors have questioned the veracity of Russian data, given what they say is the patchy nature of testing. But the government has said it has been transparent about its handling of the crisis, and that its statistics are accurate.
Moscow’s coronavirus crisis centre said in a statement on Thursday that the elderly woman who died had begun receiving treatment last week in a private clinic before being moved to a hospital specialising in infectious diseases.
It did not say where the woman was thought to have picked up the virus but said her circle of close acquaintances had been identified and was under medical observation.
None of them was displaying any serious coronavirus symptoms, it said. Russians above the age of 60 were strongly advised to minimise contact with other people, it added.
“The main message of the government is not to panic and that everything is under control,” said Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Moscow.
“But there is a lot of concern, of course. People don’t trust the low number of cases the government is reporting, and are worried that the government is hiding the true story – something, of course, they have experienced a lot in the past. Even the comparison with the Chernobyl nuclear explosion has been made.
“People have been panic buying – also out of experience, that food could come in short supply.
“There are different schools of thought here. There are experts who believe that Russia, by quickly closing the border with China, did manage to keep the infections low. Also, there were quarantine rules in place for people coming from affected countries, with very high prison terms if violated.
“But there are also many experts who believe that we simply don’t know how widespread the virus is at this stage. The government has centralised testing, which is done by one Siberian-based company – and experts have called this test unreliable. Other companies who have developed tests are not allowed to sell them.