By Saaransh Mishra
Russia is going through a fourth surge of COVID-19 as daily cases and deaths have been touching all-time highs for weeks now. The state coronavirus task force has been reporting close to 40,000 cases each day, with alarming mortality numbers. Based on official data, Russia’s COVID-19 death toll since the beginning of the pandemic until late October 2021 stood at over 230, 000, and the country also has the highest mortality rate amongst countries in Europe, and the second-highest rate in Asia, behind India. Concerningly, a report released by Russia’s state statistical service, Rosstat, in the last week of October 2021 paints an even grimmer picture, revealing that close to 462,000 people died of COVID-19 between April 2020 and September 2021.
These unabated COVID-19 numbers have put the government in a tricky situation as it needs to control the pandemic, while ensuring that the economy does not dwindle due to lockdowns. A senior government scientist, Kamil Khafizov, warned that several cases of the new AY.4.2 Delta variant of the virus, which have been detected in other parts of the world, were also detected in Russia. The current state of affairs in the country could require prolonged periods of lockdowns if the infection curve is to be flattened. In cognisance of the rapidly deteriorating situation and in the interest of public health, President Vladimir Putin had announced paid non-working days from 30 October to 7 November, 2021. The President had also authorised the regional governments to extend these restrictions beyond the decided time period if necessary, but, most of the country, except for five regions lifted shutdowns on the pre-decided date despite rising infections.
Countries have most commonly utilised lockdowns to contain the virus, which have affected their economies. The World Bank estimated a GDP contraction of 3.8 percent in the world economy, 5.4 percent in advanced economies and about 4.8 percent in most commodity-exporting economies. In comparison, Russia’s GDP fell only by 3 percent in 2020. While various economic and technological factors such as sizeable fiscal buffers, supportive monetary policy and pre-pandemic advances in digitisation helped limit economic damage greatly, the fact that President Putin declared an end to the lockdown in just six-weeks during the first wave of infections in May 2020 and opened the country, could have played a crucial role in Russia faring better economically as well.
Gauging from their approach in previous COVID-19 waves, the Russian government was unlikely to impose protracted nationwide lockdowns as they are widely unpopular in the country. Moreover, Russia’s economic situation, which has been affected to some extent because of western sanctions, also makes lockdowns less viable. Estimates suggest that since 2014, the Russian economy has grown at an average of 0.3 percent per year while the global average was 2.3 percent. Ånders Aslund and Maria Snegovaya write that sanctions have ‘slashed foreign credits’ and ‘foreign direct investment’, and may have reduced Russia’s economic growth by 2.5-3 percent a year, amounting to about US $50 billion a year. Although President Putin managed to maintain a firm grip on power ahead of the 2024 Presidential elections, his popularity had been impacted in the last year or so as suggested by his relatively uncharacteristic lower approval ratings, to which the unfavourable economic situation in the country has possibly contributed. Therefore, a lengthy lockdown, which would hinder economic progress, would be an unsuitable strategy for the government.
Even though Russia was the first country to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, the problems in the country are being compounded by a general public mistrust and scepticism regarding the vaccines. Only about 45 million or 32 percent of the country’s nearly 146 million people are fully vaccinated. A recent Gallup poll found that, of the unvaccinated within the surveyed population, 75 percent said they would not be willing to take the vaccine free of cost even if offered.
Paul Stronski, Senior Fellow at Carnegie writes that the Kremlin introduced the Sputnik V vaccine in the market during the second half of 2020, a year before the completion of the third phase of clinical trials, possibly adding to the hesitancy. Secondly, the developers had expressed hesitation in providing safety and effectiveness data to global regulatory authorities such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Medicines Agency, which has dampened the image of the vaccine at home and elsewhere. This notion is validated by an independent survey from last summer, exploring the Russians’ hesitance towards vaccinations, which showed that 33 percent of the surveyed were scared of the side effects and 20 percent said they were waiting for the completion of clinical trials. Furthermore, polls by the independent Levada Centre show that there also exists a widespread belief that the dangers of COVID-19 have been exaggerated, facilitating the lower vaccination rates. Dr. Anna Gotlib, a Russian-born philosopher and bio-ethicist, added that a major factor contributing to worsening vaccine hesitancy is the long-standing distrust of the federal government amongst the Russian population, something that Denis Volkov, the Director of Levada Centre, said as well.
President Putin has strongly been urging the population to take the vaccines, which the government has made conveniently and largely available for free at malls, theatres, public places, etc. To bolster vaccinations, the authorities have barred unvaccinated elderly people from leaving their homes until February 2022, and most Russian regions have some form of compulsory vaccinations. But, barring the aforementioned reasons, President Putin delayed getting inoculated until March 2021, months after the indigenous vaccine was rolled out in Russia, which could have exacerbated vaccine scepticism.
Russia has also not registered any foreign-made vaccines for use and none of the Russian-made vaccines have received approval from the WHO. Resultantly, Russians have supposedly been travelling to countries like Serbia and Armenia to access western vaccines that have received global approval, majorly for two reasons: Firstly, it would appear that these vaccines seem more credible to a large chunk of the population given their largescale usage worldwide; secondly, the lack of regulatory approvals for Russian vaccines could complicate international travel for those that take them.
To bolster vaccinations, the authorities have barred unvaccinated elderly people from leaving their homes until February 2022, and most Russian regions have some form of compulsory vaccinations.
The medical infrastructure in the country is under tremendous duress as almost all of the country’s 255,000 hospital beds designated for COVID-19 patients are occupied. The situation is so dire that the Russian Minister of Health even had to call upon retired doctors to cope with the staff shortages after reportedly more than 700 Russian doctors died of COVID-19 between January to June 2021.
Russia’s daily newspaper, Kommersant, reported in late October that the Kremlin acknowledged the need to actively readjust its vaccination campaign, deeming previous efforts a failure. Petr Tolstoy, the Deputy Chairman of the Duma, also told the state TV that the government had led the entire information campaign about the virus in a completely wrong way. As much as these acknowledgements are a step in the positive direction, a great deal of damage has already been done.
The challenge that lies ahead of the government is that if it hesitates to impose stringent restrictions when required, the economy might remain on track but the virus could continue to run rampant. The government’s appreciably aggressive approach towards introducing measures such as free vaccines and strongly encouraging the population to get vaccinated evidently shows that it is unwilling to improve the economy while turning a complete blind eye to this public health crisis that has engulfed Russia. But it remains to be seen how briskly and adeptly this situation is handled, given that the risky decision to lift the shutdowns in most parts has been taken.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).