By Nina Bachkatov
The Kremlin took its time before raising the alarm about Covid. For months, it has been vacillating between denials and pompous declarations. That went on until last autumn, when the country was hit by its first peak of contamination. The authorities took the full dimension of the crisis and adopted harsh measures. Then came a second peak in this winter, despite the lock-down imposed during New Year’s holiday. Finally, hope rebounded with the arrival of an efficient Russian vaccine, saluted as a success for national science. But it did not prevent a low vaccination rate to become a political as well as a health issue. It was specially vexing in a country so proud to have pioneered an efficient and cheap vaccine.
As life returns to a kind of normality, despite limits imposed at federal or regional level, the latest figures published by the national coronavirus information center show that Russia has registered 5,108,129 cases of coronavirus and 123,037deaths. Analysts put at 460.000 the total excess fatality count since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, while others consider those figures severely understated. The fact is that, in Russia as in other countries, the true scope of the pandemic may never be known, because of voluntary retention of information and because many patients were treated for respiratory diseases without mention of Covid.
President Putin, who received his second jab on 14 April, has been multiplying calls for people to get inoculated to prevent the risk of a third wave. Lock-downs imposed after the first wave, and at the beginning of the second in January, could not be prolonged for social and economic reasons.
But the Kremlin’s hope that the easy access (including in railway stations and shopping malls) to a national vaccine, touted as the world’s best, would inspire Russians has been misplaced. April figures give sign of encouragement, testing positively the decision of federal and regional authorities to lift most of the restrictions. Since the spring, Moscow and other cities offer an air of normality. Students are at schools and universities; restaurants, night clubs and shops are open; cultural life is back despite a 50% seats’ limits in theaters, concert halls and cinemas, in the capital people are back to work with 30% compulsory working from home. In rural areas, many people are unconcerned – or too conscious of the limits of local infrastructures despite the devotion of local medical staff.
But only 12% of the population is fully vaccinated with 2 doses, far below the level needed to reach the “collective immunity” Putin is calling for, while rejecting the idea of his former prime minister Dmitri Medvedev to make it compulsory.
The Russian authorities were expecting problems with production, and logistics to distribute Sputnik V through such a vast territory at the right temperature. Putin was happy enough to delegate to ministers and regional authorities, and gradually positioned himself as a moraliser, calling to collective consciousness in a growing number of public statements and interviews. Nobody expected that his calls will hit the walls of century old Russian characteristics: a lack of trust into any kind of authorities, and a feeling of Russia-ness differentiating them from the rest of the world. The distrust is part of a national psyche and has been lately reinforced by corruption scandals, feeding suspicion that all this Covid story plays into the hands of political and business elites, who take profits of it to reinforce their control on society and to share between themselves the huge financial benefits generated by the epidemy.
The Covid epidemy has also exposed how much Russians are sharing, with pride, an attitude towards death or life’s questions that are much different from that of more individualist ‘fragile’ Westerners or obeying self-disciplined Asians. In consequence, even Moscow pensioners, considered Russia’s most law-abiding part of the population, had to be bribed by offers of checks or reduced prices for their medications in an attempt to increase protection for the people over 60. The rest of the population, and especially the young, tend to believe that Covid is a virus among many others, that can hit you or not, because “this is life”.
This popular reluctance translates into a whopping 62% majority of Russians declaring they are still not ready to be vaccinated with their country’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine. Russia is trapped into a world-wide figure of around 32% of the population that will in any case accept inoculation. Further polls show that just above 50% of the population are refusing any kind of jab, not only Sputnik V.
The fear enigma
In any case, Russia’s health watchdog Roszdravnadzor has made clear that every citizen would be put on the same level and that private hospitals won’t be allowed to administer paid vaccination with the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine prior to its official registration in the country. But, at least on this point, the rich might be as cautious as the poor, and as one put it ‘I will not spent dollars to have my family turned into guineapigs”.
At the moment, the Kremlin is more concerned by health and less by political consequences. Of course, Russians might be voting with their feet away of vaccination centers, but even the opposition did not seize the sanitary crisis to rally voters. In fact, it is not politically worth, simply because people are not scarred enough. In a poll published on 12 May by Levada Centre, at the question “Are you afraid of getting infected by Coronavirus?”, 42% of respondents said they were not. And their number is lowering: asked the same question by the same Levada Centre, in last October, 64% said they were afraid of getting infected, while 34% said they were not. Today, 42% of Russians refuse to get vaccinated against the coronavirus under any circumstances (There are no precise sub-questions about what scare them, or not).
In the meantime, Russian laboratories continued their work, and have two other vaccines homologated. They offer a better protection against new variants and are easing the logistic difficulties. And Russia announced proudly that its Cornivac-Cov, the world’s first coronavirus vaccine for pets, will be available in public and private veterinary clinics across several regions of Russia by early June.