Panicking about swine flu in Orenburg

The region is gripped by swine flu panic, much of it orchestrated, in the opinion of Elena Strelnikova. But every cloud has a silver lining – we’re all having unscheduled holidays
Elena Strelnikova
9 December 2009

“Mum, you’re sending us out, but you’ve forgotten the most important thing!” my elder daughter once more tried to catch me in dereliction of my parental duties. “What else???” “You’ve forgotten to give us flu masks! The teacher said that we shouldn’t go outside without them!” My stubborn daughter refuses to budge if she’s certain she’s right. And this time she was certain, because the teacher said so. I was saved by the doctor who lives next door.  She explained that my daughter didn’t need a mask to go outside, and that she would be more likely to get cold than save herself from getting flu.  I’m sick of this flu, whether it’s swine flu, avian flu, or just ordinary old flu…

In the Orenburg Oblast, doctors kept quiet until recently, or rather they hushed everything up. Everyone was diagnosed with severe respiratory viral infection; there was no flu here. Where could it have come from? Just look how far away Mexico or Europe are from our Orenburg steppe.  It’s true,  the border between Europe and Asia does run through Orenburg along the Ural River, but that flows into the Caspian Sea, and there isn’t a lot of talk about flu there. Perhaps there isn’t any on these shores. At Orenburg airport in the summer doctors made a visual inspection of people arriving from abroad. At train stations, attention was only given to people who had the flu written on their faces, so to speak.

In short, when the first reports came about the swine flu that had spread all over the world, we weren’t at all afraid. The governor issued instructions to officials and journalists that the word “swine” should be excluded from the vocabulary, in case, God forbid, people misunderstood and stopped buying pork. This is amusing, of course, but you can see where he’s coming from. In our region agriculture has always had, and continues to have, priority importance. 40% of the population live in rural areas, and mainly subsist on their own farming, in other words pigs and cows are their main sources of food. Three years ago, there was “avian” flu, and it didn’t even make people sneeze once in Orenburg, but a great deal of poultry was slaughtered in farmyards.  The people cried as they lost their chickens and geese. They were not only crying for their lost birds, but because they had no way of repaying their loans. If villagers have no animals in their yards, they have no money. The average agricultural salary is 5-6,000 rubles (200 US dollars). There are farms where they get 10,000 rubles, but herdsmen and milkmaids receive their pay with a delay of 3-4 months. People want to eat. How can they live without pork? It always fetches a good price at the Orenburg market. Up to 250 rubles per kilogram. Even if you sell a pig to a middleman for 100-120, you’ll still get a decent amount of money, although it might not make you rich. So we’re calling it A/H1N1, not swine flu.

At the same time, the regional health ministry issued regular reports about routine anti-flu vaccinations, and announced that influenza here had not reached epidemic proportions for about five years. We believed this and got ourselves vaccinated with Grippol. Incidentally, the vaccine often had to be hunted down, as it only appeared in polyclinics from time to time. My two-year-old daughter didn’t get vaccinated at all, as the Russian vaccine wasn’t suitable for small children, and you couldn’t find imported vaccines anywhere. My elder daughter was given an injection along with everyone else, although some parents didn’t allow their children to be vaccinated. My husband works in the city’s main enterprise, where the workers were handed out the vaccine. If they wanted, they could inject themselves; if not they could give the vaccine to their family and friends. All they had to do was sign a piece of paper. I was the one who got the vaccine in our family, because my husband is terribly afraid of injections.

So the people of Orenburg continued to live happily and drink their raspberry tea with honey.  Then the evil and terrible A/H1N1 came to us from beyond the Black Sea (I said there was no flu in the Caspian). The first cases of the disease were brought to the area in September by children who had been on holiday in Bulgaria. They probably forgot to put on our famous Orenburg wool shawl, which protects us from all calamities and misfortunes. We never leave the region without it - in the sense that we take it with us a present, rather than a talisman. It really is wonderful. It’s fine and lacy, soft as a kitten, passes easily through an engagement ring, fits into an eggshell and is very warm. But specialists are increasingly concerned that the industry is dying out.

For a real Orenburg gossamer wool scarf (pautinka), the down of a special breed of goat is required. Our local goat, Guberlinsky. Knitters are crazy about it! Orenburg goats don’t look particularly remarkable. They are horned and bearded. But their down-hair is the finest in the world: the coat of the Orenburg goats is 16-18 micromillimetres thick, while for Angora goats (mohair) it is 22-24 mcm. People tried to export our goats, but in a few years their down-hair disappeared, and they become coarse-haired animals. Specialists believe that the down-hair will only grow, if there are severe frosts, icy winds and abundant snowfalls. Well, we have plenty of these. But it’s become unprofitable to keep goats. Sending the wool abroad is very expensive, there are almost no buyers and the only local factory making wool shawls prefers to knit from cheap raw materials from Volgograd. Home-knitters have also begun to buy wool outside the region, because it’s cheaper. It’s coarse, but it’s still a shawl and can be sold. Ordinary people don’t travel abroad every day. And few people in Orenburg have a real pautinka shawl at home.

Incidentally, old people say that our Orenburg gossamer shawls have medicinal qualities too. Yes, I’m still thinking about the flu. After the Bulgarian cases, it literally attacked the Orenburg area. Reports on the flu began to appear as if from the frontline. In October, the first official references to mass infection were recorded at specialized medical secondary schools. The east of the Oblast was the first to go down. An entire town was quarantined. It wasn’t a large town, with only 50,000 residents or so, but this still came as a shock. Then schools were closed in all the villages of the East Orenburg area. Districts in the east are always particularly badly affected for some reason. There are a lot of single-industry cities and villages. There is practically no market demand for local production (metal, steel, cast-iron, copper, nickel, asbestos, mechanical engineering and light industry), the equipment is outdated, and the productivity and quality are low. Owing to the crisis many people have been laid off or had their working week reduced, so their salaries have been halved. Recently the official Orenburg press even reported the suicide of a 40-year-old woman. She worked at a factory and hadn’t been paid for a year. The prosecutor’s office regards her growing debt mountain (loans, municipal services etc) as one of the possible motives. No one even remembered about the flu.

By the end of November, almost 40,000 people had severe respiratory viral infections and ordinary flu in the Orenburg Oblast. The cases of child flu had topped the pediatric epidemic threshold by a factor of three!  No one says that all these people have swine flu, but five people have already died. However, the regional branch of the Russian Consumer Rights Protection and Human Health Control Service was in no hurry to publish this data. My husband was quite calm about this grim statistic: “How many people died from cancer during this time? From heart disease?” Everyone seems to be used to cancer in Orenburg… Every family has lost someone to cancer. It is the second most frequent cause of death in our region. The first is heart attack. Alas, people don’t panic about this here, but everyone is scared of the flu.

All the anti-flu medicine was hoovered up from the pharmacies, and all the masks disappeared almost within a day. Medics rushed around town, with up to 30 calls a day, though they don’t get a bonus for doing so. Doctors in the polyclinics had their salaries raised to 15,000 rubles, thanks to the national “Health” project. But their workload has also been increased. Our local doctor now has 700 children in her care (she had 500 before the national project), and the distance from one house to another is up to 5 kilometres. What distances she has to cover in one day!  And she has to walk, she doesn’t have a car. She has still to see people at the polyclinic too, and fill out a huge number of reports.

It’s not surprising that there are still not enough doctors in polyclinics. We haven’t had anyone in the adult section for a year now. People are pushed from one doctor to another. I go to a doctor who is an acquaintance of mine. I’m lucky that she also works in our polyclinic. Although to be quite honest, you’d be better off not getting into the hands of our doctors. For any illness, there is one diagnosis – severe respiratory viral infection, and now the flu has been added to this. A daughter of a colleague died recently, at the age of 23, from a stroke. She was treated for the flu, then for vegetative-vascular dystonia, then had a few more dubious diagnoses, and when they finally decided to do a CT scan of the brain, it turned out that the machine at the hospital had been out of order for three months. At a very decent and respectable city medical institution. The daughter of another friend of mine has been running a temperature since September, and the doctors also cannot or do not want to find the cause for this. They tried to attribute it to the flu, but the symptoms don’t fit. Now we’re thinking about going to the governor, perhaps at least someone at this level will be able to help. But everyone is taken up with the flu there too.

Incidentally, on the subject of national projects. One of our federal government’s super ideas! Now money is apparently being thrown to the wind with the president’s approval. It appears that it weren’t for him, Tsar and God that he is, the Orenburg doctors wouldn’t have any of these wonderful things. I’ve talked to doctors, teachers, villagers and builders. They are experienced people and they say that this all existed before the national projects were launched. It just cost less. Now more funds are being allocated, but they are all just for show, and alas, the lion’s share of the money doesn’t reach the real people, though they have to account for every kopeck of the money that does actually get through.

The prosecutor’s office of the Orenburg Oblast reports that most of the dishonest people can be found among the rural population. They say the loans have been given to the wrong people. Our film crew went to see these debtors. Do you know where the privileged loans went? To pay the workers and pay off other loans. Until the introduction of the national projects, rural residents were also trying to revive agriculture. Only this year, because of the drought, many farms had an unprecedentedly bad harvest – four centners per hectare, and the price is ridiculously low – 4,000 rubles per ton. So much for flu masks… There I am talking about the flu again. It just doesn’t want to let me go.

However, children in Orenburg have been sent home from school on unscheduled holidays. And this is despite the fact that, for example, there is not a single sick child in our class! Now my daughter is sitting at home, doesn’t want to open her textbooks and is constantly trying to get outside. To be safe, I ring my doctor friend: “How’s the flu? Is it really that dangerous?” Do you know what he said? No more than in previous years. Back then, they didn’t want to spoil the statistics, and everyone had severe respiratory viral infection written on their reports. Flu just wasn’t in fashion at the time. But now, encouraged by pharmacists, it has become terribly popular. There’s excitement and panic, it started in Moscow and now it has reached us. And as for flu masks… what good are they… the price of masks at pharmacies has already reached 90 rubles (3 US dollars).

I thought it over, and decided that every cloud has a silver lining. If the pharmacists have made such a profit, the revenue to the Oblast treasury will increase. The flu will actually be able to pull our light industry out of the crisis. Workshops are sewing flu masks non-stop. And influenza will certainly help the people in rural areas – sour cream, honey, garlic and onions are flying off the shelves. The reduced working week at factories has also suddenly justified itself. Children have unscheduled holidays from school and kindergarten, so their parents look after them at home. What’s so bad about this flu, after all?! We’ve seen worse things than this… I think I’ll go and brew some fragrant peppermint tea and serve it with honey and raspberry jam. My family loves it!


Orenburg Railway Station

 Editor’s note:  The city of Orenburg lies on the River Ural, 1500 kilometres southeast of Moscow, close to the Russia’s border with Kazakhstan.   Capital of the Orenburg Oblast, one of Russia’s largest regions, it has population of around 600 000. Historically, Orenburg was an important military outpost on the frontier with the nomadic Kazakhs. It became the centre for the Orenburg Cossacks. Today, Orenburg is an important industrial centre. Natural gas and energy generation are among the most important local industries. Orenburg is famous for its gossamer-thin woollen scarves. 


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