To take a break from the usual demagogy about the bad East and the evil Putin, I would like to talk about an achievement that Russia can be proud of, regardless of the ethical and unethical experiments that were carried out during the rapid development of the Sputnik-V vaccine. However, the positive aspects of the vaccine were overshadowed by the state propaganda machine and the eagerness to be first.
When Russian scientists were ready to present the vaccine to the world, the Kremlin’s propaganda channels rushed ahead and called Sputnik-V the best and the first vaccine against Covid-19 that can’t be matched by any other vaccines.
Unsurprisingly, this informative marketing was carried out by the same media outlets that have argued that the poisoning of Navalny was staged by Western intelligence services, that the Malaysian Boeing was downed over Donbass by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and that no Russian athletes in the Sochi Olympics got involved with doping. This is most likely the main issue why Russia’s official media outlets, and consequently the Sputnik-V vaccine, aren’t taken that seriously by rational people in the West and Russia itself.
If the regime in Russia was more strategic in its thinking, the interests of the national healthcare system would take center stage, only then followed by its propaganda needs. This would allow the government to take a break and let independent experts review the effectiveness of the vaccine.
For instance, due to the severity of the pandemic unprecedented vaccination infrastructure was set up in Moscow – until the end of last year practically all citizens of Moscow were able to receive a free Covid-19 vaccine. Additionally, after the Sputnik-V vaccine results of antibody tests started appearing in social media (from independent laboratories). Despite all this, public trust in vaccination in Russia remains low compared to the rest of the world, which correlates with low public trust in the regime and the media in Russia.
The extensive work of the propaganda machine in Russia resulted in Muscovites not rushing to “seize” hospitals to receive the vaccine, and by mid-February only several hundred thousand people in Moscow had received the vaccine, and most of these people were the elderly.
In order to renew public transportation cards, people in Moscow had to go to the hospital, and those who were eligible for such a card received a new one only after being vaccinated. However, Moscow’s vaccination success looks suspicious in the context of the entirety of Russia because there are many people living in the regions who would like to receive the Sputnik-V vaccine, but they don’t have such an option.
If in developed countries, including Latvia, there were ethical discussions on which professions or groups of people should be the first to receive the vaccine, Russia solved this moral dilemma quite easily – in the best practices of the Soviet Union, Muscovites deserve the best treatment out of all Russians due to logistical, infrastructure and other reasons.
People are still reluctant to stand in queues to get the vaccine, despite the fact that the second most respectable medical journal The Lancet has published a research that ranks Sputnik-V among the best currently developed vaccines against Covid-19. It’s effectiveness (allegedly) is 90% and no side-effects have been observed. Those rational people who understandably didn’t believe Russian propaganda, could possibly now believe The Lancet.
However, the problem is much larger. The example of Sputnik-V clearly shows that Russian propaganda is willing to steal all of Russia’s achievements to immediately use them to strengthen Russia’s “geopolitical influence”. Meanwhile, regular Russians are forced to become hostages of these propaganda campaigns.
There’s no supply without demand, and until Russians decide that they’ve had enough of their tzar nothing will change. We must assume that information about Covid-19 in Russia was withheld and that the real numbers are probably much larger that official statistics show. It is also clear that the Kremlin has not the capacity to produce the Sputnik-V vaccine for everyone, but the vaccine is currently being used for geopolitical aims – while Russians are dying without the chance to receive the vaccine, the Kremlin is sending Sputnik-V abroad to its friendly regimes. Sputnik-V is most likely an effective vaccine, but the Kremlin’s relentless propaganda activities have achieved a reverse effect. Alas, the thought process of the Russian elite is perfectly evidenced by the palace in Gelendzhik and its surroundings.
*Brain Marchand is a political commentator from NYC