MOSCOW — Russian authorities detained the leader of an independent doctors’ union, an outspoken critic of the Kremlin who has dismissed as “lies” the country’s low official numbers for coronavirus infections.
Anastasia Vasilieva, the head of the Alliance of Doctors, was stopped by the police on Thursday and held overnight while traveling from Moscow to an impoverished rural town to deliver masks, gloves and other supplies to a local hospital, a colleague who was traveling with her said.
The detention of Dr. Vasilieva, an eye specialist who has been highly critical of Russia’s response to the pandemic, added fuel to already widespread skepticism, particularly among Kremlin critics, about the accuracy of official figures showing relatively few cases of the virus in Russia. Her detention also increased skepticism about the readiness of Russia’s health care system to cope with the pandemic.
Maria Bakhldina, the head doctor at the hospital, speaking to Fontanka, a news site in the city, dismissed the doctors complaints as “untrue.”
Views on how far the virus has really spread in Russia and how prepared the country is have been largely determined by political leanings. The general public, which mostly supports President Vladimir V. Putin, has voiced little concern while many of the Kremlin’s opponents suspect a cover-up.
Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, recently accused the authorities of lying about the number of tests carried out and suggested that, as a result, the number of cases could be much higher than reported.
Russia has sharply stepped up testing and now says it has conducted more than 575,000 tests, but this includes cases of multiple tests on the same person, lowering the head count.
In an address to the nation on Thursday, President Putin, holed up for most of the past week in his country residence outside Moscow, praised health workers for “holding the line of defense against the advancing epidemic” but acknowledged the worst is yet to come.
Russia has been far more open in confronting the pandemic than many other former Soviet countries, some of which insist they have no cases now and can keep the virus at bay with quack remedies.
A sudden large surge in cases would likely break Russia’s rickety medical system and undermine Mr. Putin’s already declining but still robust approval ratings, especially as state-controlled media has bombarded the public for months with gushing reports about how the president is improving health care across the country.
The virus has also slowed Russia’s already sluggish economy, posing another problem for the Kremlin less than a month after it pushed through constitutional changes to allow Mr. Putin to dispense with term limits and stay in power until 2036.
Dr. Vasilieva, the detained physician, set up the Alliance of Doctors last year in part to counter the Kremlin’s claims of dramatic improvements in funding and other support for hospitals. She has treated Mr. Navalny as a patient and affiliated her group with his. The authorities arrested her last year for rallying opposition to the closure of a tuberculosis clinic in a poor region of southern Russia.
Mr. Putin’s approval rating, according to a recent survey by the Levada Center, a respected Russian polling organization, fell from 69 percent in February to 63 percent in March, near to what it was in 2014 before a surge in the president’s popularity after Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.
In his last public outing early last week, Mr. Putin visited a new state-of-the-art infectious diseases center, Hospital No. 40 in Moscow, escorted by its head doctor, who this week tested positive for the virus. The Kremlin said that Mr. Putin has been tested regularly and that “everything is O.K.”
Russia on Friday reported 601 new infections, down from 771 new cases reported on Thursday, bringing the total number to 4,419. This is a fourfold increase over the past week but still far fewer than the more than 245,000 cases reported in the United States and nearly 118,000 in Spain and 115,000 in Italy.
Critics of the Kremlin, however, have questioned the official figures. Dr. Vasilieva, the detained doctors’ union head, said in a video late last month that authorities were lying about the true number of infections, accusing them of deliberately misclassifying people who had developed the disease as victims of ordinary pneumonia.
A few days later, she said she had been called in for questioning over her comments, declaring defiantly in another video that “You can send whomever you want to get me — the Federal Security Service, the fire service — but the truth will not change.” The real number of coronavirus cases, she said, “is much higher than the authorities say.” She provided no evidence of any cover-up.
Her medical workers’ union, warning that Russian hospitals were desperately short of masks and other protective equipment, recently started a fund-raising drive online to raise money from the public to buy supplies for hospitals and clinics.
The government, too, seems worried that it may need to do more to control the virus. On Friday, it suspended the last remaining flights into the country, halting even special flights bringing Russians home from abroad, the Interfax news agency reported. All land borders have already been closed.
Moscow, St. Petersburg and many Russian regions this week ordered residents not to leave their homes except to buy food and medicine or walk their dogs close to their residence.
Dr. Vasilieva was stopped by police officers on Thursday while attempting to deliver supplies by car to a hospital in Okulovka, northwest of Moscow, according to Natalia Kolosova, a colleague who was traveling with her. “They were clearly waiting for us,” Ms. Kolosova said, noting that police officers had set up a check point at the entry to Okulovka but stopped no other vehicles.
Dr. Vasilieva appeared in court on Friday charged with disobeying police orders and violating quarantine restrictions. She was released on Friday evening after being ordered to pay a small fine.
Natalia Zviagina, director for Amnesty International in Russia, condemned the detention, saying in a statement that: “It is staggering that the Russian authorities appear to fear criticism more than the deadly Covid-19 pandemic” caused by coronavirus. By detaining Dr. Vasilieva, she added, the authorities show “they are willing to punish health professionals who dare contradict the official Russian narrative and expose flaws in the public health system.”
Dmitri Sokolov, a paramedic at the Okulovka hospital and the head of the regional branch of Dr. Vasilieva’s Alliance of Doctors, said that the hospital had not yet admitted any patients confirmed as suffering from Covid-19 but that staff members were deeply worried because of severe shortages of masks and other equipment.
Okulovka hospital’s head surgeon, Yuri I. Korvin, also a critic of the authorities, had been ordered to stay away from the hospital and self-isolate for two weeks because he had had contact with Dr. Vasilieva, Mr. Sokolov said. Police officers involved in her detention, however, were allowed to keep working, he added.
Mr. Sokolov said “nobody knows the real number of infections” and added that residents in Okulovka were alarmed by a recent flood of people arriving from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Fleeing quarantine restriction and high infection rates in their home cities, urban residents have been fleeing to rural towns like Okulovka to take shelter at country homes.
“None of us know where these people have been or whether they have been tested,” he said.
Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.