By Bryan MacDonald
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has been diagnosed with Covid-19. The news was announced on Thursday evening, live on national television, during a video link with President Vladimir Putin.
First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov will step in as interim head of government during Mishustin’s recovery.
It appears Mishustin – who replaced Dmitry Medvedev as Prime Minister in January – received the result of his test while at work. Earlier in the day, he headed a governmental session, conducted remotely. His diagnosis makes him the second major world leader known to have contracted the infection – after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“It just became known that the tests that I’ve passed for coronavirus gave a positive result,” Mishustin told the president “In this regard, and in accordance with the requirements of Rospotrebnadzor [the national health watchdog], I must self-isolate and comply with the instructions of doctors: I have to do this to protect my colleagues.”
“What’s happening to you now could happen to anyone,” Putin replied. The President assured Mishustin that no major decisions would be taken without his input while he battles the infection. Putin also noted that members of the government are at particular risk during the Covid-19 crisis as direct contact with colleagues cannot be avoided. The Prime Minister has been working from his office at Moscow’s ‘White House.’
Mishustin told Putin that his cabinet will continue working uninterrupted, and that he’ll keep in touch with the president. “I’m planning to remain in active contact with my colleagues via phone and video conferences,” he said. The 54-year-old has played a major role – alongside Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin – in Russia’s response to the pandemic.
He also appealed to Russians “to take most seriously” the threat of coronavirus, encouraging everyone to stay home over the May holidays. Russia normally has two major celebrations at this time of year – Labor Day on May 1 and the annual May 9 celebration of Soviet Russia’s World War Two victory over Germany. It also informally marks the start of ‘dacha season’ in many parts of the country, with the roads traditionally packed as city dwellers head to their country boltholes.
According to Moscow daily Vedomosti, the Prime Minister and all his deputies take daily tests for coronavirus. Mishustin’s spokesman, Boris Belyakov, said that face-to-face communication between government members and the Prime Minister has been as limited as possible for the past few weeks. He added that that the government will continue to work as usual and that next week’s meetings will be held as planned. Belyakov also confirmed that Mishustin will be hospitalized.
Putin subsequently signed a decree making Belousov interim head of government. Belousov is a Moscow-native, like Mishustin, and has served in various positions, under both Putin and Medevedev, over the past two decades. Since 2013, he has been an economic advisor at the Kremlin.
Sobyanin indicated on Thursday evening that the capital’s lockdown might be eased around the middle of May, as long as the situation with Covid-19 doesn’t worsen. Meanwhile, authorities in the southern Krasnodar region hope to open the holiday season from June 1.
There have been 106,498 confirmed Covid-19 cases registered in Russia so far, with 1,073 fatalities. The country has introduced strict lockdown measures to stem the spread of the highly contagious disease. Earlier this week, President Putin said that the restrictions will be prolonged at least until May 11.