Officials have ruled that 60% of workers in “customer-facing” service sector jobs should be fully immunized by mid-August. While workers are free to refuse the jab, their employers are allowed to suspend them without pay if they do.
Russia on Thursday recorded a record number of daily coronavirus deaths for the third day in a row, as the virus spread across the country. Gone are the falsely reassuring words of President Vladimir Poutine: “The end is in sight and we will soon be able to return to a normal life”. His remarks last year were aimed at the mayor of Moscow, intended to lift the lockdown on the city in order to reassure residents that they could vote safely in the constitutional elections scheduled for July 1. It was also the time when the other world medical expert, Donald Trump, told Americans that the coronavirus was “just the flu”, which “would dissipate with the hot weather oncoming.”
Others were less convinced. “Everyone knows that it is madness carried out for one person”, declared Alexeï Navalny, pointing the finger at Putin “sitting in his bunker for two and a half months, fearing to catch the virus”. A week earlier, Russia held its postponed Victory Day military parade, which turned out to be a massive event. People have also turned out in droves to approve the changes to the Constitution, allowing Putin to remain president for life. The Kremlin’s priorities were clear; Putin’s ambitions were far more important than the health of the people.
A year of confusion and weak leadership later, Russia is grappling with a severe third wave of Covid-19, driven by the highly infectious Delta variant. Some 5.88 million people have caught the virus so far, according to the Russian Coronavirus Task Force, bringing the death toll to 146,069. Most Russians, however, treat Kremlin figures with suspicion, knowing that they are always massed in favor of the authorities. In the current pandemic, if someone dies from pneumonia or other respiratory failure caused by the coronavirus, they are not recorded in the Covid statistics; only the word “pneumonia” will appear on the death certificate as the cause. Experts argue that a more reliable indicator of the human cost of the coronavirus is “excessive death,” the difference between the number of all deaths on record compared to what one would expect. Since the start of the pandemic, the excess death toll in Russia has been around 483,000, more than three times the reported figure from the coronavirus, and as a percentage of the population, one of the worst in the world.
So why is Russia behaving so badly? After all, it’s been almost a year since Vladimir Putin boasted that Russia won the race to develop the first vaccine, named Sputnik V to remind the world that Russia put the first satellite into space. At the time, experts were concerned about the speed of vaccine development in Russia, suggesting that researchers could save money by missing important trials. But it is now confirmed that this Russian vaccine offers high levels of protection against Covid-19, which led Putin to claim in May that the Sputnik V vaccines were as “reliable as the Kalashnikovs”!
Yet only 18.9 million of Russia’s 146 million people had been fully immunized last month, just 1.46%. In Moscow, the epicenter of the outbreak in Russia, only 1.8 million of the city’s estimated 12 million people (1.2%) had been fully vaccinated, despite free vaccines having been available since December . Compare these figures with the United Arab Emirates (66.6%), the United Kingdom (66.2%) or even Mongolia (55.7%).
The simple reason for the low adoption of vaccines is that Russia has a high level of vaccine skepticism. Independent pollster Levada reported in a poll in May this year that a whopping 62% of people did not want to get the vaccine produced in Russia, and that the highest level of reluctance was identified among the 18 to 24 years. . Most of those interviewed cited side effects, such as fever and fatigue, as the main reason for not wanting to be vaccinated. The poll also found that 64% of people believed the coronavirus was created as a biological weapon and, alarmingly for the Kremlin, up to 56% were not afraid of catching the disease.
Kremlin watchers are not surprised by Levada’s findings. Since the start of the pandemic, Russian state media have spent an enormous amount of time ridiculing other countries for their severe shutdowns while trashing their vaccines. They happily amplified every complication and victim of the vaccines produced by Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca and rejoiced at every development hiccup. “Thank goodness we have not seen such tragic situations after vaccinations as we have seen with AstraZeneca and Pfizer,” President Putin said in a press conference call earlier this month, failing to understand let the Russian people listen to his words and, rather than be reassured, worry more and more not only about their own vaccines, but vaccines in general. The result is widespread vaccine skepticism, especially as one of the three vaccines produced in the country, EpiVacCorona, has been embroiled in a constant stream of scandals and skepticism about its effectiveness and has been publicly accepted as a failure. Persuading people to get vaccinated is also not helped by reports of underhanded practices, widely circulating on the internet, of doctors telling patients they will be given Sputnik V, when in fact they are getting an injection of the much maligned. and ineffective EpiVacCorona.
Russian authorities have repeatedly squandered almost any chance of beating the pandemic. Their massive, bloated propaganda apparatus failed to do the only job it was designed to do: spread the immunization message. Instead, the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis of trust between government and citizens. The Kremlin is now worried and has started to change course. After ruling out mandatory vaccinations, the authorities turned to coercion and corruption.
In June, officials in several Russian regions, including Moscow, ruled that 60% of workers in “customer-facing” service jobs should be fully immunized by mid-August. While workers are in theory free to refuse the jab, their employers are allowed to suspend them without pay if they do. This is, in fact, a “no jab-no work” policy. Moscow has also started enforcing tough new rules, with unvaccinated people now required to provide proof of a recent negative PCR test, or proof of recovery from the coronavirus, if they want to dine inside.
Inevitably, this created a side effect: a thriving black market for fake vaccination certificates. Reports were circulating in Moscow this week that for around $ 100, criminals ensure that vials with vaccine doses allocated to clients are simply poured out, while they are given false certificates and added to the official citizens’ register. vaccinated, allowing them to access workplaces and restaurants. President Putin’s own vaccination has been shrouded in secrecy, having recently claimed that he received the Sputnik V version but, unusually for him, refusing to be broadcast on television with the vaccine. For someone who proudly rode a horse topless for viewers, this lack of visual evidence only heightened public suspicion and skepticism.
Nonetheless, vaccination figures seem to be improving. As of Thursday, 20.89% of the population had received a dose, while 13.58% were fully vaccinated, according to the Russian website Gogov, which gives official coronavirus vaccination statistics. The Kremlin has recognized that it is now impossible to meet its 60% vaccination target by September 1, and has now lowered it to 30%.
Amid these developments, which sparked a public backlash, Putin has remained largely silent, having made it clear on previous occasions that he views vaccination as a personal choice. He reiterated this point of view during the press conference call: “I do not support compulsory vaccinations and I continue to have this point of view,” he said. Its continued reluctance to strongly endorse unpopular vaccination policies is part of a pragmatic strategy to distance itself from controversial initiatives that could damage its image and, by proxy, lower the ratings of United Russia, the already very ruling party. unpopular Kremlin-controlled vying for a good result in the parliamentary elections in September.
For Vladimir Putin, this is a real dilemma. His United Russia party hopes to maintain its dominance in the 450-seat lower house of parliament in elections in just eight weeks. A good performance and a qualified majority would pave the way for possible future legislative or constitutional changes depending on his political intentions in 2024. While Putin’s approval rating is still high, he has taken a hit in recent years, driven by a controversial pension reform and what many Russians see as stagnant wages, declining living standards and persistent high-level corruption. An equally pressing problem is apathy. The last parliamentary elections, held in 2016, saw the lowest turnout in post-Soviet history, and analysts predict turnout in September’s vote will be even lower.
Voter apathy and the coronavirus are a dangerous mix for Vladimir Putin. If they persist until September, it will be time to bring out the time-honored method of winning Russian elections: vote rigging. But after the debacle of 2012, voters are now wary of such methods. Covid-19 is unquestionably creating a viral puzzle for the Kremlin.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in the office of British Prime Minister John Major between 1995 and 1998.