Risking death for Arctic gas? Northern Russia construction site becomes COVID-19 hotbed

Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations has established a mobile tent-style hospital near Novatek’s construction site north of Murmansk. (Photo: gov-murman.ru)
Dramatic increase with 192 new cases confirmed on Friday and another 105 on Saturday in the district of Novatek’s construction site north of Murmansk bringing the number of workers infected by the coronavirus up to 791.

Two weeks after the first coronavirus cases at Belokamenka were made public the situation now seems out of control. Regional authorities in Murmansk could late Wednesday evening confirm another 84 cases of coronavirus in the Kola district where Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations has rushed to establish a tented field hospital.

By Friday evening the number peaked at the highest day-by-day increase of 192, followed by another 105 when the number was updated on Saturday evening.

791 Belokamenka workers have so far tested positive to the coronavirus, the regional authorities in Murmansk reports via the Vkontakte page monitoring the outbreak.

Nearby, evacuation has started, but thousands of workers are still packed in barracks at the largest industrial construction site anywhere north of the circumpolar Arctic Circle.

Belokamenka (the White Stone) is where Russia’s largest private-owned natural gas company, the Novatek, is building Kola Yard supply base aimed to support the upcoming Arctic LNG-2 project in the Ob Bay in Siberia.

With the sharp increase on Friday and Saturday, there are now 961 confirmed coronavirus cases in the Murmansk Oblast (county), of which more than four-fifths are at Belokamenka.

Questions can be asked why construction work was not shut down after the first 4 positive tests at Belokamenka were confirmed to the public on April 9th.

Violetta Grudina with the Murmansk support group of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny has posted several video-blogs showing how social distancing recommendations are neglected at Novatek’s construction site.

She says up to 11,000 workers are at stake.

Novatek has not replied to questions from the Barents Observer about why not more protective measures are taken and why construction has not been terminated earlier.

Partly evacuation

The vast majority are fly-in, fly-out employees of which many are foreigners from China, Turkey, and Central Asian Republics.

Belokamenka is located on the west side of the Kola Bay with the Russian Northern Fleet’s Headquarters in Severomorsk to the north and the navy yard No. 82 in Roslyakova across the bay. The Northern Fleet’s airport can be seen in the horizon. (The Independent Barents Observer / Google Earth)

One of the contractors at Belokamenka, the Velesstroi, this week announced it will partially suspend work. The company is now trying to regroup employees, sending them to 14-days isolations at other locations than the barracks in Belokamenka.

The move only affects those who have not tested positive to the coronavirus, Velesstroi writes in a statement.

“The people going to isolation will be sent to hotels, rest houses and boarding houses in a number of regions in the Russian Federation,” the statement reads.

Regional news online mmk.news, known for monitoring air traffic to and from Murmansk, could report about a Ural Airlines Airbus-321 with 220 seats arriving in Murmansk on Monday to bring out Velesstroi workers from Belokamenka that are citizens of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The return flight out of Murmansk, however, was delayed and the destination changed from Moscow to Samara.

Shortly before departure, repeated tests revealed a large number of infected among the about 200 passengers.

Social distancing, what?

The video below shows many hundreds of workers at the construction site lining up to the canteen where social distancing seems to be an unknown phenomenon.

Tent-style hospital

On Sunday last week, two huge cargo planes from Russia’s Ministry of Emergency situations landed in Murmansk loaded with a field hospital that in record speed has been erected near the village of Mezhurechye in Lavna, not far from Belokamenka.

With the hospital follows 130 specialists, including medical doctors. The tent-style field hospital has 10 mechanical ventilators, X-rays machine and other necessary equipment.

This tent-style field hospital is put in place by the Ministry of Emergency Situations. (Photo: gov-murman.ru)

By April 22nd, 606 cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the Murmansk region, according to the regional authorities. Two-thirds of those case are in the district of Novatek’s Belokamenka construction site. 542 of the 606 are in hospitals.

Federal authorities confirmed 4,774 new coronavirus infections by Thursday, bringing the country’s official number of cases to 62,773.

So far, 555 people have died from the coronavirus in Russia.

This article was updated on April 26th with the new confirmed numbers.

Related stories from around the North:

Arctic: Roundup of COVID-19 responses around the Arctic, Eye on the Arctic

Canada: COVID-19 testing rates are falling across the Canadian North — here’s why, CBC News

Finland: First Covid-19 death reported in southwestern Finnish Lapland, Yle News

Greenland: COVID-19: Arctic science expedition postpones flight campaign after trainee tests positive for virus, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Norwegian Arctic wilderness tourism hit particularly hard by coronavirus, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Novatek construction site faces fastest growing coronavirus outbreak in northern Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Nordic COVID-19 lockdowns will have same end results as Sweden, says former state epidemiologist, Radio Sweden

United States: COVID-19 pandemic raises hard questions about health disparities, says Int’l Inuit org, Eye on the Arctic

Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer

For more news from the Barents region visit The Independent Barents Observer.

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