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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting about the COVID-19 outbreak, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, on May 22, 2020.

SPUTNIK PHOTO AGENCY/Reuters

President Vladimir Putin said Friday the coronavirus outbreak in Russia has begun to abate, creating a positive environment for easing restrictions, as officials defended the country’s data on deaths against claims they were being under-reported.

Speaking during a video conference with top officials, Putin pointed at the decreasing number of new infections in Moscow and other regions. “The positive dynamic is not so fast as we would like it to be, sometimes even unstable, but it does exist,” he said.

Russia currently ranks second after the United States in the number of infections with 326,448 cases, including 3,249 deaths.

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The Russian leader said a steady drop in new cases sets the stage for further lifting of restrictions, but he also emphasized the need to preserve hospital capacity in case of a new wave of contagion.

Officials have reported to Putin that the influx of COVID-19 patients, particularly those in grave condition, has fallen. Putin noted that the country’s hospitals are capable of accommodating over 165,000 coronavirus patients, and they are currently two-thirds occupied.

The COVID-19 mortality rate in Russia has remained remarkably low at about 1 per cent, drawing suspicions in the West that the country was under-reporting its death toll. Russian officials have rejected the claim, saying that the low toll reflected efficient preventative measures and broad testing.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said during the call with Putin that the country’s approach to counting COVID-19 deaths is in line with the World Health Organization’s guidelines and more precise than in other countries, based on autopsies conducted in all cases.

“Russian illness and mortality statistics, unlike those of other countries, are fully comprehensive and personalized,” she said.

She forecast, however, that the death toll will markedly rise in May, reflecting high numbers of infections in recent weeks.

Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, which accounted for about half of all infections, said the Russian capital has managed to avoid the “worst-case scenario” but also predicted a surge in May deaths.

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“It’s quite obvious that the number of deaths in May will be significantly higher than in April,” he told Putin. “We were at the peak of contagion in April and early May.”

Moscow’s health department reported earlier this month that 639 people died of COVID-19 in April, saying autopsies proved that the deaths of 60 per cent of all those who died and had been infected with the virus were caused by other grave underlying illnesses.

Some experts have questioned the Russian refusal to include all deaths of those who tested positive in the coronavirus toll, suggesting a politically-driven desire to downplay mortality. Russian officials have rejected the claim, saying that the Russian approach is more accurate and is in full conformity with the World Health Organization’s guidelines.

While the daily number of new coronavirus cases in Moscow has dropped from a peak of about 6,700 to under 3,000 now, other hot spots emerged across Russia. They included Dagestan, a mostly Muslim province in the North Caucasus mountains, whose health care system has crumbled under the flow of COVID-19 patients. The surge of infections in Dagestan has prompted the Russian Defence Ministry to deploy field hospitals there.

In the neighbouring province of Chechnya, strongman regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov has berated local doctors for complaining about shortages of equipment and protective gear.

On Thursday, Russia’s state news agencies reported that Kadyrov has been hospitalized in Moscow after suspectedly contracting the disease. Kadyrov’s office hasn’t responded to an AP request for comment.

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Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov and three Cabinet ministers have been among officials who tested positive for the coronavirus. Mishustin and Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova have convalesced.

On May 11, Putin ordered an end to the nationwide partial economic shutdown he imposed in late March and instructed regional governors to reopen industrial enterprises and other businesses wherever it’s possible. The epidemic has badly hurt Russia’s economy, already weakened by a drop in global oil prices and Western sanctions, and businessmen have widely deplored state support measures amid the outbreak as bitterly insufficient.

While some of Russia’s 85 regions already have eased restrictions, strict lockdown measures have remained in place in Moscow and the surrounding region.

The epidemic has eroded support for Putin, that dropped to 59 per cent in April, the lowest point in more than two decades of his rule, according to the independent Levada Center polling firm.

Historian Niall Ferguson compares COVID-19 to past global sicknesses, likening it to a flu pandemic that hit in the 1950s. He also says the coronavirus will accelerate the emergence of a new Cold War between China and the U.S. Mr. Ferguson was in conversation with Rudyard Griffiths from the Munk Debates. The Globe and Mail

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