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Official COVID-19 Death Tally In Russia's Dagestan...

Musa Salgereyev

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The Kremlin is racing to put down a health crisis in the southern republic of Dagestan, where a surge in recent deaths unattributed to the coronavirus is again raising questions about the true severity of the outbreak and how Russia tallies its COVID-19 dead.

National attention fell on Dagestan, a majority-Muslim republic of nearly 3 million people, last weekend after local video blogger Ruslan Kurbanov interviewed the republic's health minister Dzhamaludin Gadzhiibragimov on his YouTube channel.

"Can you tell us how many have been infected and how many have died?" asked Kurbanov.

Gadzhiibragimov's answer: Just 29 deaths from COVID-19 among 13,000 infections. But 657 people, he added, had died from "community-acquired pneumonia." He also said more than 40 health workers had died while on duty.

The announcement grabbed headlines in Moscow, but merely reinforced what Dagestanis already knew, say local activists.

"It wasn't a sensation at all," says Ziautdin Uvaisov of Patient Monitor, a Dagestan-based aid organization. "People could see the dead piling up and it long ago became clear the official statistics have no basis in reality," he tells NPR.

Indeed, medical figures in the republic have been sounding the alarm since mid-April. And this week, another key figure joined in the call for help.

Dagestan's most famous celebrity, mixed martial arts champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, went public about the virus' toll on his family.

"It's a very difficult situation. I personally have over 20 relatives... who were in intensive care. Many of them are not with us anymore. Many of my acquaintances are dead," said Nurmagomedov in an Instagram video earlier this week, which garnered more than 4 million views. His father was reportedly evacuated to a hospital in Moscow, and is in a medically induced coma.

Amid a growing public uproar, President Vladimir Putin has been forced to intervene.

In a video conference between Putin and local leaders this week, Dagestan's top cleric, Mufti Akhmad Abdulayev, described the local response to the virus as a "catastrophe" and appealed for help.

Putin dispatched army medical teams and representatives of Russia's emergency situation ministry to help stem Dagestan's outbreak with "urgent measures." But the Russian leader also laid blame with Dagestanis themselves for gathering in crowds and, later, not seeking urgent medical care in time.

"It's true people were slow to believe about the virus, but that's because state television was telling them it wasn't serious. It was nothing worse than the average flu," says Magomed Magomedov, deputy editor of the independent Chernovik newspaper in the capital Makhachkala. "But that doesn't explain why the hospitals didn't have what they needed."

As the republic's medical workers complained about a lack of protective equipment, Dagestani residents and businesses crowdfunded to help fill the need.

"The Kremlin help is good but it's a little too late," says Uvaisov of Patient Monitor.

A new test perhaps will come with Eid celebrations marking the end of Ramadan this weekend. Authorities are urging people to stay home.

With over 326,000 cases, Russia has surged to second in the global coronavirus infections count, after the U.S. But media organizations have unearthed evidence of the the government underreporting COVID-19 deaths — now officially at 3,249.

Russian health experts have defended their death count, insisting they reflect a more thorough post-mortem assessment than those used elsewhere.

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