As Pandemic Grips Russia, an Age-Old Bane Returns: Drinking

As Pandemic Grips Russia, an Age-Old Bane Returns: Drinking

MOSCOW — Dr. Azat Asadullin, chief doctor at a clinic in south-central Russia, is scrambling to prepare for an influx of patients. He is ready to deploy spare beds and stocking up on medication and disinfectants.

The affliction Dr. Asadullin is girding for is alcoholism.

Across the world, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked fears of increased alcohol abuse, as people locked in and anxious turn to drink. In Russia, two weeks into a nationwide partial lockdown, those fears are becoming reality as evidence mounts that a spike in alcohol sales is fueling a rise in domestic violence.

“The patients are dour, irritable and aggressive,” Dr. Asadullin said, describing the people he is treating during the pandemic. “Over New Year’s they’re more compliant and happy.”

Reducing the country’s passion for inebriants has been one of the government’s main public health goals under President Vladimir V. Putin, and the most recent official statistics showed Russians consuming about one-third less alcohol per year than they did in 2003.

But dayslong drinking binges are still a habit for some people, especially during holidays. In late March, when Mr. Putin obliged with a nationwide paid week off to combat the spread of the coronavirus, the habit kicked in.

Sales of vodka in Russia shot up 65 percent in the last week of March, compared with a month earlier, according to the market research firm GfK. Domestic violence activists registered a spurt in reported incidents, particularly by intoxicated men.

And in Yakutia, a region of Siberia four times the size of Texas, the authorities said a spike in crime by drunken individuals included the stabbing to death of a family of four.

“Some people perceived this week off as though it was an extended holiday,” Aysen Nikolayev, the governor of Yakutia, said in a phone interview. “Unfortunately, this began to lead to bad consequences.”

To head off a crisis, Mr. Nikolayev banned all alcohol sales for a week in the regional capital of Yakutsk, with a population of some 300,000, and in several other districts. Around a dozen of Russia’s 85 regions — largely rural areas that have struggled with substance abuse — have also limited alcohol sales.

“I’m sorry if anyone doesn’t like this,” Rady Khabirov, governor of the Republic of Bashkortostan in south-central Russia, said in a social-media post at the beginning of the month announcing that alcohol sales would be banned from 6 p.m. to 10 a.m. “History will be the judge.”

Anti-alcoholism activists say the whole country needs to restrict alcohol sales for the duration of the social-distancing measures being imposed to fight the pandemic. So far, the response has been piecemeal, and activists and some doctors blame poor messaging on the part of the government for making matters worse.

“Unfortunately, the government didn’t work to get out in front of this issue,” said Sultan Khamzayev, head of the Sober Russia activist group. “There was practically no outreach being done.”

Part of the problem is a widespread, false belief across the former Soviet Union that drinking vodka can treat or prevent diseases.

“I’ve recently been joking that you shouldn’t just use vodka to wash your hands,” the president of neighboring Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, said last month. “You should probably also take in 40 to 50 grams of the equivalent of pure alcohol to kill this virus. Just not at work.”

Mr. Khamzayev said his organization tried for two weeks to get the Russian Health Ministry to state publicly that alcohol consumption was harmful in fighting the virus.

But it was only on Monday, April 6, that the health minister, Mikhail Murashko, told an interviewer on state television that “trying to treat all this with alcohol” would lead to a coronavirus patient being admitted to the hospital in a state in which “they can’t be saved anymore.”

The coronavirus has been slower to spread in Russia than in many Western countries, but the country has seen its caseload double over the last five days. The Russian authorities announced their highest one-day count of new cases on Tuesday — 2,774 — bringing the total to 21,102 confirmed infections and 170 deaths.

In Moscow, Russia’s hardest hit city, officials have warned that the health system risks being overwhelmed, and lines of ambulances have formed outside hospitals waiting to admit suspected coronavirus patients.

Moscow and many other regions are allowing residents to leave their homes only for urgent matters or to walk their dog within 100 yards of their front door. Mr. Putin has declared that all Russians in nonessential jobs must be allowed to stay home, with pay, for the entire month of April.

But many people who don’t work for the government or in deep-pocketed state enterprises face economic devastation nevertheless.

The resulting boredom and anxiety threaten to set back Russia’s long-running battle against alcoholism, doctors and officials across the country said.

“The lid is still on, for now, but the pot is already boiling,” Dr. Aleksei Kazantsev, head doctor of a private addiction treatment center in Moscow, said of the pandemic-induced bout of alcohol abuse. “We haven’t seen the peak yet in Moscow.”

Dr. Asadullin, who works in a state-run addiction treatment clinic in Bashkortostan, said he was anticipating a wave of patients on par with the onslaught he usually gets during Russia’s extended New Year’s holiday period in early January.

While during the winter holidays it’s typically the celebrations that set off drinking binges, this time, it’s anxiety, he said. Alcohol’s disinfectant properties serve as a convenient excuse.

One of the patients admitted on Wednesday told him, “I decided to decontaminate myself with alcohol.”

The heightened alcohol consumption threatens to worsen Russia’s domestic violence crisis, which activists say the government has long ignored. They say that while alcohol isn’t in and of itself a cause of violence, it can trigger or intensify it, or be used as an excuse.

In Moscow, Mari Davtyan, a lawyer for domestic violence victims, said three women separately reached out to her organization in the last two weeks with strikingly similar stories: A partner lost his job as a result of the pandemic, went on a drinking binge and became violent.

Marina Pisklakova, who runs the Anna crisis center for domestic violence victims, said her organization had received 2,537 calls to its hotline in March — about a 25 percent increase from the previous month, with the last week of March seeing the greatest volume.

In one case in southern Russia, she said, a man who was home from work because of social-distancing measures got drunk and beat his pregnant wife, who then had to be taken to the emergency room. Ms. Pisklakova said she expected the situation to get worse as the economic toll of the pandemic became clear.

“We’re going to have a wave of alcoholism, along with a wave of violence, after the epidemic, because the economy will suffer and many people are now losing their jobs,” she said. “This is only the beginning.”

Oleg Matsnev and Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting.

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