ISSN 2330-717X

The Pandemic Of Fear Haunts Moscow – OpEd

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By Lyubov Sharkova*

In just a short period of time, the world in Russia has changed for everyone. I’ve started to notice how people around me are going mad. They’ve started blaming and avoiding other people, making social distance the priority of their lives. These people are well-educated, well-off, with flexible minds. It doesn’t matter who they were in their life “before corona”. Now all of them are afraid. And that’s the reason for their madness.

They are afraid to go to the office, walk, meet with their friends and just do what they usually do. And all of them are repeating the same mantra – the situation is very serious; we don’t want the Italian and American scenario to be repeated here. One person told my friend: “They cancelled the Cannes Film Festival”. They never did that before. So it does mean the world is close to a catastrophe.

Would you say it’s the pandemic of coronavirus that is changing Russia? No, I’d say it’s the Pandemic of Fear that did it.

Of course, no politician wants to see all these human victims (and the fall in their own ratings). But do they really know what to do?

Here in Russia, the first statement on coronavirus was made by President Vladimir Putin on March 25. He unveiled measures designed to slow the transmission of coronavirus, declaring the next week a non-working week for most people and urging people to stay at home. All entertainment venues in Moscow and some other cities were closed, as well as most schools, kindergartens and universities.

But neither a quarantine nor a state of emergency was announced. So many people went for a walk during the sunny weekend. But then the mass media “exposed” them as “violators” of a non-existing quarantine. The reaction of the authorities to this panicky behaviour by the media was a total lockdown in most regions of Russia. It was then further prolonged until the end of April. The media and many so-called experts had pushed successfully for unnecessary action by the government.

The number of corona cases is increasing every day. But the fatality rate is less than 1%. A new Italian government health report says that 99% of those who have died had pre-existing illnesses. It seems that the actions of the government are orchestrated by the Pandemic of Fear.

Because of the way epidemics work most people are infected by the coronavirus already or will be later. Will we panic more when that hits home among the public and the politicians? An irrational fear could take over with consequences that we have yet to witness.

Today many Russian experts debate whether this virus had already been spreading in Russia since the end of last year. Actually, in November, we do know that there was an outbreak of pneumonia in some Russian regions. Some schools in Moscow were closed for quarantine in December because of community-acquired pneumonia.

According to the state statistics’ agency, Rosstat, in January in Moscow, the number of pneumonia cases increased by 37% compared to 2019. The total number for the month was 6921. But no experts got worked up. Even now they can’t say which virus caused pneumonia. Nobody bothered too much.

We already know that today’s lockdown is costing the Russian economy a lot. Some officials are making forecasts for 1.5-2% loss of GDP for each month of the quarantine. According to the latest online polls, the economic crisis has already had an impact on 60% of respondents. 45% have decreased incomes and 5% have already lost their jobs. Around 65% of Russian people don’t have any savings at all. The Pandemic of Fear is taking a heavy toll.

The Russian government has already taken measures to support unemployed people, important enterprises and medical workers. But it’s clear that they can’t save all people.

As a citizen, I want to know more concrete statistics about the severe cases that lead to deaths. Do they really know who dies just because of coronavirus or because they have pre-existing conditions that would have led to their death in the not distant future? I want to see professional epidemiologists and the scientists who are guiding the politicians reveal more of their doubts about the way of counting deaths, as they have in Sweden. They are the ones who can stop the hysteria in the media and in everyday discourse.

In Sweden, where the chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell and the head of the Public Health Agency Johan Carlson make the important decisions and not the government – as the constitution mandates –  they are balancing the choice between the progress of the disease on one side and the effect on the economy and human stability, even sanity, on the other.

The death rate in global terms is relatively low although it is somewhat higher than in neighbouring Denmark, Norway and Finland but the economy is still doing rather better and people feel less threatened by the possibility of unemployment, a big recession and a social crisis.

I don’t want to live in this non-stop atmosphere of fear in Russia where politicians are following the Western pattern and seemingly reacting spontaneously to this crisis.

We will be able to analyze all that happened and all the unprecedented measures that were taken only when this pandemic is over and we get back to our normal lives. But we won’t be able to revise the cost we paid for our mistakes. So maybe we should think first and then act, leaving our Pandemic of Fear behind.

* The writer is a well-established producer on a major Russian TV channel, based in Moscow, specializing in current affairs. Her e-mail is [email protected].


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