Moscow (AFP) – Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin on Thursday announced he has tested positive for the coronavirus, as the country’s number of confirmed cases surged past 100,000 after its largest daily increase.
In a televised meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mishustin said he has to “observe self-isolation” to protect his colleagues, suggesting a temporary acting PM.
Putin swiftly signed a decree appointing First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov as a temporary replacement.
The president assured Mishustin that contracting COVID-19 “can happen to anyone” and that no major decisions would be taken without his input.
“I hope that you stay able to work,” Putin told Mishustin, who is the highest Russian official to become infected.
“Call me as soon as you arrive to the hospital,” said Putin, who appointed Mishustin in a surprise decision in January, picking the formerly obscure tax service chief to replace longtime premier Dmitry Medvedev.
Putin has not held any face-to-face meetings for weeks, according to the Kremlin website, and was last shown in the same room as Mishustin on March 24.
– Infections spiking –
A spike of 7,099 confirmed infections in the last 24 hours brought Russia’s total to 106,498 cases and 1,073 deaths, according to the government’s daily coronavirus update.
With its number of cases increasing by several thousand each day, Russia is now the European country registering the most new infections.
But Russia’s coronavirus death rate remains relatively low and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the country’s actions had helped it avoid the catastrophic “Italian scenario”.
Russia’s success was down to “tough self-isolation decisions” and government measures “which convinced people to stay at home,” Peskov told the RTVI television channel.
He also said Russia had quickly and efficiently increased the number of available hospital beds.
The virus has spread to all 85 regions of the country, with Moscow the epicentre with around half the total cases.
Russia has the eighth highest number of virus cases in the world after recently surpassing Iran and China, according to an AFP tally.
The country has carried out nearly 3.5 million virus tests, health officials said, and is ranked 19th in the world for the number of coronavirus deaths.
– Situation ‘very difficult’ –
Medics in Russia have complained of shortages of protective equipment and testing kits and hospital staff are becoming increasingly concerned with deaths in the medical community.
Medics and trade union representatives have told AFP that the problem is particularly severe outside of Moscow where staff are at an even greater risk of infection.
The Kremlin this week extended until May 11 a “non-working” period when Russians would stay at home but still receive their salaries as part of sweeping efforts to contain the virus.
Yet the measure has brought uncertainty to the economy, with business owners struggling to pay full salaries to employees while shutting their doors to customers.
The government has been phasing in anti-crisis measures, such as loan payment deferrals or cheap loans, but there is concern that Russians are unable to access the support.
Despite the steady increase in cases, Putin said that Russia may begin to gradually lift different quarantine regimes throughout the country from mid-May.
Mishustin on Wednesday extended a ban on entry for foreigners into the country, which had been due to expire Thursday, until “the fight against the infection is over and the epidemic situation has improved.”
The pandemic has thwarted several major political events for the Kremlin this year, with Putin postponing a massive military parade on May 9 commemorating the 75th anniversary of victory in World War II. Many world leaders had been due to attend.
The Kremlin also postponed an April 22 vote on landmark constitutional reforms, which would have paved the way for Putin, 67, to potentially stay in power until 2036.