Life without medical supplies

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When he first visited Russia in 1995, Peter Barker found post-Soviet chaos meant medicine was in short supply. As the UK faces breaking of supply chains at the end of 2020, might we be facing a similar plight?

I was involved in French twinning before I moved to Exeter. When I came here, I was intrigued by the fact that Exeter has a Russian twin city – Yaroslavl – located about 160 miles north east of Moscow. Eventually, I decided that I must visit Russia once to see what it was really like.

Thus I made my first visit in 1995, almost four years after the end of the Soviet Union. The Russian economy was in a precarious state. The food queues of the 1990s had largely gone, it was true, but Russia was undergoing a fundamental transformation involving massive changes to trading relations, standards and logistics. In fact, the whole disruptive process has grim resonance with the challenges posed in the UK by Covid-19 and Brexit. The shortages in Russia were not only of new consumer goods but of necessities such as medical supplies. Spares for existing equipment were also difficult to get, especially those which had to be imported. Prices rose, causing a deterioration in living conditions, particularly for the most vulnerable, such as pensioners. In turn, crime rates and corruption soared as opportunities were spotted by so-called biznesmeny (a transliteration of “businessmen” – the nature of their ‘business’ being not always legitimate).

I went to Yaroslavl as part of a twinning group. Shortly before the visit, I was asked to act as courier for urgently needed medical supplies gifted by fundraising well-wishers from Exeter and Devon. This consignment was specifically for the Yaroslavl Children’s TB Hospital. The disease was on the rise in Russia, and due to the shortages normal delivery arrangements were not secure, so a reliable courier was needed. I was particularly aware of the seriousness of TB because my grandfather in Sussex had died of the disease in the days before effective treatments became available. I naturally agreed and was entrusted with an almost tea-chest size package of medical goods, which I was told had cost £850 (1995 prices) but were, potentially, even more valuable in Russia.

At Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport, I had a terrifying encounter with Russian customs – scary because my package was examined and found to contain tablets, drugs in powder form and hypodermic syringes. For a moment I thought that I might have been tricked into acting as the naïve ‘mule’ for a narcotics consignment from Exeter. Although it was quickly established that the drugs indeed were for medical purposes, my assignment and paperwork breached complex protocols for carriage of medicines between countries, the sort of red tape our businesses may be facing from January 2021. Fortunately, through the intervention of Marina from Yaroslavl-Exeter Friendship Association and recognition that my mission was charitable, an exception was made for the shortfall in documentation. To my relief, I was allowed to continue.

Russian people warned me to guard these medical supplies carefully because the shortages meant that unscrupulous people might try to inveigle me into handing them over. Fortunately, my Yaroslavl host Valery had a friend on the medical staff at the Children’s TB Hospital and would arrange for them to receive their supplies. A few days into my visit, the precious consignment was collected by a representative of the hospital. I was pleased to have discharged my responsibility and could now relax.

I enjoyed my visit tremendously. There’s something about Russia that entrances you, particularly the people – their charm, humour, friendliness, the way they welcome guests, maybe forged by so many bitter years. I decided to return the following year. The Children’s TB Hospital had not forgotten me and, having discovered that I was returning to Russia, their senior management wanted to meet and thank me. The last thing I wanted was to visit a children’s TB hospital, but good manners dictated that I accept the invitation.

Peter Barker with the twinning group at Church of Elijah the Prophet, Soviet Square, Yaroslavl in 2017

My tour of the hospital was an eye-opener. Everything was clean, tidy, properly organised. The staff seemed professional, smiling, with patients looking well cared for; but there seemed a dearth of hospital equipment and medicines. The staff explained the challenges caused by the inadequacy of medical supplies. They were deeply grateful for what I had brought them. I learnt that my package had contained supplies specifically requested by the hospital to address their shortages, including analgesics, antibiotics, disposable syringes and needles. At the conclusion of my visit a doctor drove me back to my hosts. He could speak but two English words: “Manchester” and “United”.

On twinning visits you can share personal views with ordinary people. Russians are people just like us. At that time, they were enthusiastic about their post-Soviet freedoms, although their new democracy was fragile. There was a multitude of political parties, many with progressive ideas. However, they were fragmented, and people were living under difficult circumstances, facing shortages, rising crimes and corruption. While many people expressed liberal views, there were others who told me that they were beginning to think democracy was overvalued. They would prefer a strong leader who put an end to the chaos, even at a price. We know where that has led. Likewise in the UK, many people feel too battered by the pandemic and its effects on their mental health or financial prospects to worry about Serious Shortage Protocols or our loss of the European Medicines Evaluation Agency. Yet I fear we may be facing similar challenges to post-Soviet Russia when Brexit begins to bite. We have seen lists of drugs that could be in short supply and there are warnings about the threats to vital, life-saving essentials such as isotopes for cancer treatments. These are not part of Project Fear. They are Project Brexit Reality.

Finally, a personal note. I find the Russians easy to get on with, friendly and hospitable. In fact, I have now been to Russia ten times and would have gone again this year but for Covid-19. How will our countries view one another by the time I am able to make that next trip?