US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — Russian President Vladimir Putin has eased a nationwide self-isolation regime imposed on March 30 to contain the COVID-19 epidemic, although Russia is turning into a new focus of infection in Europe. As of May 15, there are more than 250,000 cases of infection, and Russia now ranks second in the world in the number of confirmed diseases.
Speaking on television on May 11, Putin said some industries are resuming work, but restrictions on holding mass events across the country remain. Everyone should wear masks and gloves while in stores and on public transport. In Moscow, car dealerships, non-food stores, hairdressers, and most other service enterprises still do not work. But in other regions of Russia, some of these enterprises received permission to open and resume work.
Residents are still prohibited from leaving their homes, unless they need to go to the store, go to work or walk the dog. To travel, everyone must receive digital badges. According to Putin, individual regions will decide for themselves whether to preserve these rules or not, and the way out of self-isolation will be cautious, “step by step.” “We have a long and complicated process ahead of us that does not give us the right to make a mistake,” he said.
Throughout Europe, countries are gradually lifting restrictions due to the fact that the number of infected and dead from coronavirus is reduced. However, Putin’s declaration of withdrawal from self-isolation came at a time when Russia recorded a record number of new infections – 11,000.
How many sick people are there in Russia?
The first cases of transmission of the infection within the country (not brought in by the Russians who returned from abroad) were confirmed on March 15. Since then, their number has risen sharply, and as of May 14, there were 252,245 sick people and 2,305 deaths in Russia. This is data from Johns Hopkins University. Russia now ranks second in the world in the number of registered infections after the United States. “The country has not yet peaked,” says Christopher Gerry, director of the Russian and East European Studies program at the Oxford University School of Global and Regional Studies.
But in Russia, unusually low mortality rates from coronavirus, amounting to 0.9%, while in the United States they are 6%, and in Britain 14.4%. This causes doubts among experts.
According to an analysis published by the Financial Times on May 11, the number of deaths in a country could be 70% more than the official figures. An analysis of mortality for all reasons (illness, hazardous effects) in Moscow and the second city of Russia, St. Petersburg, showed that compared with the average for the previous five years, in April there were 2,074 more deaths.
However, according to official data, only 629 people died from COVID-19 during this time in two cities. Thus, 1,444 deaths remain unexplained. If this first figure is included in the total number of deaths from coronavirus as of May 11, we get a 72 percent increase in mortality.
On May 7, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin admitted that the actual number of people infected in the capital is at least three times the official figure. Moscow, which is the country’s main city and major transport hub, has become the epicenter of the epidemic in Russia. It accounts for more than half of officially confirmed cases and deaths. In the hospital with a viral infection are the country’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Anastasia Vasilieva, head of the Russian Alliance of Doctors, claims that the virus has spread much wider than official statistics show. “In some hospitals, patients with pneumonia are simply not checked for coronavirus, and positive test results for those tested are not always included in the statistics,” she says. “The real picture is being hidden from the public.” In January 2020, the number of cases of pneumonia in Moscow increased by 37% compared with January of the previous year, and Vasilyeva believes that this growth was caused by coronavirus.
On April 2, Vasiliev and colleagues were detained by police when they brought protective equipment to a hospital outside Moscow at night. They were accused of violating the rules of self-isolation. “It’s amazing, but it seems that critics of the Russian authorities are more afraid than the deadly COVID-19 pandemic,” said Natalia Zvyagina, director of the Russian branch of Amnesty International.
“They want to shut up my mouth and stop my activity. The state does not want me to become a heroine,” says Vasilyeva.
How does Putin and his government react?
At first, Russia reacted very quickly to the outbreak of COVID-19 in China. On January 30, the Kremlin closed a 4,000-kilometer border with China, and in early February opened a quarantine facility in Siberia for Russians evacuated from Wuhan, which became the main focus of COVID-19 in China. Until March 17, the number of people infected with coronavirus was less than 120, and then Putin said that the situation as a whole was under control. “From late January to late March, very little has been done to combat the pandemic,” says Jerry.
“In early March, I wrote to the government and said that we need to prepare, we must provide medical personnel with personal protective equipment, otherwise doctors will die. Many doctors understood what awaited us, because we watched what was happening in Italy. We had time to prepare,” says Vasilyeva.
Although the number of infected people rose sharply, Putin still insisted that “the situation is under control.” Experts say that he seemed to have withdrawn from the fight against the pandemic, which is very unusual for the centralized political system of Russia, where all power is concentrated in the hands of the president. In March, Putin left for his residence near Moscow, giving regional governors the opportunity to decide for themselves which restrictions to impose.
“There was a real decentralization of governance, and responsibility for mistakes and omissions fell on the local authorities, not the Kremlin, and certainly not Putin,” says Mathieu, a researcher at the Russian and Eurasian programs at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Mathieu Boulègue).
Putin on March 25 postponed a nationwide vote to amend the constitution, which was set for April 22. He based his decision on security considerations. Since the beginning of the year, the country’s parliament has been working on a series of amendments that will allow Putin to remain in power after 2024, when his current presidential term expires.
According to a survey published on May 6 by the Levada Center, an independent sociological agency, the Russian president’s popularity ratings in April fell to a historic low of 59%. In February, this indicator was equal to 69%. In April, the center also announced that Russian respondents approve of actions by local leaders in the fight against coronavirus more than Putin’s actions.
Mr Putin’s “worries about popularity ratings” on the eve of a constitutional amendment vote that could keep him in power after his current presidential term ends, says Bouleg. “He is trying to create a buffer zone around him, protecting him from any criticism and popular discontent. It’s too early to talk about how the epidemic will affect Putin’s popularity in the long run, but he’s unlikely to get out of this pandemic.”
Meanwhile, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has become a major figure in the fight against the virus. On March 30, he imposed restrictions on the city much more stringent than in New York. All parks, restaurants and shops of non-primary importance were closed. Following the example of Sobyanin, the leaders of about 20 regions obliged their residents to stay at home.
Why the number of cases continues to grow?
Experts say the self-isolation regime was introduced too late. At the time the restrictions were introduced, “the virus in Moscow was already entrenched, about the same as it was in Britain,” says Jerry.
Poorly organized testing deprived the authorities of the ability to accurately track the extent of the virus, he notes. In February and March, the test mode was “inappropriate.” “There was a very confusing three-step verification mode, the test results were sent to Western Siberia, and it took several days to wait for the results. People could walk with the virus for a week or more without knowing the results of the analysis,” Jerry says.
The rules of self-isolation were also observed “relatively weakly”, partly due to the fact that the Russian population received confusing signals. “Of course, the regimen was not strictly enforced to stop the spread of the virus,” he adds. Despite the order to stay home (from April 14 to May 12), more than 70,000 residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg decided to go on trains and planes to other regions of the country for long May holidays. On March 27, international flights were canceled with a few exceptions, but nobody began to ban domestic flights (though the demand for tickets fell sharply).
Recently, Russia has expanded the scope of testing, and Putin said on May 11 that about 170 thousand tests are carried out in the country every day. However, many questions remain about the reliability of testing. On May 7, the Moscow Department of Health issued a statement stating that tests used nationwide mistakenly show that people in the late stages of coronavirus infection are completely healthy.
“At the beginning of the epidemic, there was unwarranted arrogance and arrogant confidence that a pandemic would not hit Russia seriously,” said Judy Twigg, professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. When the number of people infected in Russia reached more than 27,000 on April 1, the Kremlin sold protective equipment and ventilation devices to the United States, which sparked criticism within the country. “We are collecting money all over the country to buy protection for doctors, and our authorities are selling personal protective equipment in the United States. What a mockery, ”the independent alliance of Doctors Alliance, an affiliate of Alexei Navalny, wrote on April 2 on Twitter. Two weeks earlier, the Kremlin sent 122 military medics and personal protective equipment by military transport aircraft.
Meanwhile, Vasilyeva says that personal protective equipment is not enough even in Moscow. “Some doctors have to work in one mask all day, although they must change them every 2-3 hours. And of course, they go home by public transport. They fight fire without protection,” she says.
The lack of personal protective equipment led to the rapid spread of the virus in hospitals, where they are infected with each other by patients, doctors, nurses and other health workers. A group of Russian doctors recently launched an online “obituary” of doctors who died from coronavirus. On May 14, there were 190 people in it, and the youngest was barely 26 years old. “This is a tragedy. That was not supposed to happen,” Twigg says.
The regional authorities, which unexpectedly received unprecedented powers, are also poorly prepared for work in a crisis. “They are not used to such duties. They do not fully understand what resources they can use in conditions of lack of the most necessary. Personal protective equipment is not delivered to hospitals that urgently need them, ”says Jerry.
According to him, the healthcare system in some areas outside of Moscow is not able to cope with the increase in morbidity. In Russia, there are more hospital beds per capita than in Western Europe, but a significant part of the medical equipment is outdated. “Even where there are intensive care units, there’s not always enough staff to work in them,” says Jerry.
“In some areas that have become foci of infection, there is a shortage of specialists, which is why a huge burden is placed on physicians,” Twigg said. According to her, hospitals through social networks beg for help from anesthetists, respiratory therapy specialists and other doctors. “In some places, the need for them is so great that the situation is just desperate,” Twigg notes.
She points to cases when three doctors dropped out of the windows of hospitals in Russia during two weeks in April and May. This indicates the tremendous stress experienced by health workers. “Perhaps these doctors committed suicide due to stress and stress,” Twig says.
Why does Putin want to weaken self-isolation?
According to analysts, the main reason why it was decided to relax restrictions in society is of an economic nature. According to a Levada Center survey conducted in May 2019, two-thirds of Russians have no cash savings, which is why they need to urgently return to work.
“Russia is in a desperate economic situation,” says Buleg. In this country, two-thirds of exports are energy resources, and lower oil and gas prices pose a very real threat to household incomes. Experts predict the most serious recession in a generation. On April 24, Putin himself admitted that Russia is now facing a larger-scale economic crisis than the 2009 global recession. Announcing the relaxation of restrictions, he said the unemployment rate has doubled to 1.4 million. According to former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, eight million people may be left without work.
Russians who have lost their jobs do not have to rely on financial support from the state. Unlike most European countries, Russia does not announce serious measures to help those who are unemployed. The first two government packages of urgent economic assistance make up 2.8% of GDP, while in the USA about 10% of GDP is allocated for these purposes. Now Russia is preparing a third package, and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov claims that the real amount of state aid is 6.5% of GDP.
What awaits Russia?
Significant challenges lie ahead, including for the state healthcare system, which is experiencing an increasing burden.
Twigg is most concerned about regions outside of Moscow, including some large cities and rural areas. “They lack funding, lack staff, lack equipment. The story is far from over, ”she says. Breaking out of self-isolation will ultimately pose serious obstacles to saving lives, adds Jerry.
According to Buleg, the pandemic showed the paradoxical consolidation of power by Putin, which has been going on for 20 years. “Russia is a vulnerable country, it has neither the means nor the ability to ensure a strict regime of self-isolation. A pandemic will be a serious stress test for her.”
Contact us: [email protected]