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As Russia shuts its borders, how widespread is COVID-19 there?

Russian cases of COVID-19 have been low until now, according to the country’s government. But there are serious doubts about the veracity of those numbers, especially in Moscow -- Europe’s largest city. For a population accustomed to packing tightly into churches, the concept of social distancing has not yet taken hold. Special correspondent Lucy Taylor reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Russia is the largest country on Earth, spanning nine time zones.

    Until now, the numbers of COVID-19 cases there has been low, according to Russia's government.

    But, as special correspondent Lucy Taylor reports, there are serious doubts about the veracity of those numbers, especially in the capital, the largest city in Europe.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    In times of trouble, many Russians look to the orthodox church. It's a place to ask for healing and protection.

    But with the spread of the coronavirus, the closeness of this congregation could now be putting people in danger. But far from staying away, this church is more crowded than usual.

  • Man (through translator):

    I am not 15 years old, I have seen some things in my life, and I'm not really concerned.

  • Man (through translator):

    I am convinced that it helps to have faith. There have always been various illnesses, but, sooner or later, they all ended.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    Churches here have been ordered to clean the icons that worshipers kiss, but they haven't been asked to send people home.

  • Father Vladimir (through translator):

    There are more people in the church than before. People are praying for this to end, and no one is afraid.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    Is it time now to close the churches to protect people?

  • Father Vladimir (through translator):

    No, churches should be not closed under any circumstances. I absolutely believe that. But anyone who falls ill should realize that they could become a source of illness for other people, and stay away for a while.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    The number of confirmed cases in Russia has been low compared to other countries. And so daily life for many people is going on as normal.

    For some, the virus is something to laugh about. This video jokes about using vodka to beat it. But the number of cases is rising, and doctors say it could soon become much more serious.

    President Putin says the virus is under control in Russia. But some people here are suspicious of the official figures. They say that the testing isn't reliable, and that those numbers could be missing tens of thousands of cases.

    The Russian Doctors Alliance says the authorities are labeling cases of coronavirus as simply pneumonia.

  • Anastasia Vasilyeva (through translator):

    So I think the number of infections is, of course, in the tens of thousands, serious illnesses, maybe 10,000 who are currently suffering pneumonia, and those up on their feet, maybe 100,000 or 200,000. We simply don't know.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    The Russian government says the low figures of the coronavirus are thanks to its early action.

    Back in February, it started testing people of Asian appearance in the streets and blocked most Chinese visitors. Now the borders are closed to almost all foreigners. Moscow's older people, those over 65, have been ordered to stay indoors.

    And all but essential workplaces will be closed for a week from this coming Saturday. But one Russian over 65 is not bound by those restrictions. President Vladimir Putin is 67.

  • President Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    Thanks to the measures taken in advance, we as a whole are able to restrain both the wide and rapid spread of the disease.

    We must understand that Russia, simply because of its geographic location, cannot isolate itself from the threat. Near our borders are states that are already seriously affected by the epidemic, and it is objectively impossible to completely block its penetration into our country.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    The opposition accuses President Putin of using the pandemic for political gain, as a reason to ban protests against constitutional changes that would give him 12 extra years in power.

    A national vote has now had to be postponed. More than 100,000 people have signed an open letter calling for more urgent action.

    Alexey Minyaylo is the campaigner behind the letter

  • Alexey Minyaylo:

    The government is clearly not doing nearly enough to curb the epidemic, which has already started in Moscow and will spread to the regions very, very soon.

    They think that they can use these half-measures, like what is actually this much, but this should be done that much.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    But Putin's assurance that everything is under control is putting many Russians at ease.

  • Man (through translator):

    The measures that are being taken are absolutely fine, no need for stricter restrictions. I think people should just observe good hygiene. I don't think the virus will progress. Everything will be OK.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I am a living person. I want to breathe oxygen. I want to see things. I want to go to a shop. I have got to buy things. I am not the type of person who'd sit at home.

  • Lucy Taylor:

    The virus is still widely seen here as something foreign, but it is an illness that respects no border and has no bias. And as each day passes, COVID-19 becomes ever more Russian.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lucy Taylor in Moscow.

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