The headquarters of the operational response to the coronavirus in Russia on Saturday reported 24,439 new cases of the virus – the highest number since January 16. It also hit a record 697 daily related deaths in the past 24 hours.
It is driven by the Delta variant and passes through a largely unvaccinated population.
In Moscow alone, the one-day death rate is the same as for the whole of the UK in one week. In St. Petersburg, where football fans gathered on Friday to watch Switzerland play against Spain, the deaths are on par with those in Moscow.
Finnish authorities have just attributed 40% of a recent spike in cases to fans returning from Euro 2020 to St. Petersburg. Reluctance to immunize is a major problem.
Only 16% of Russians have had their first jab. In the UK, it’s 66%. Moscow authorities are offering prizes for getting people to vaccination points.
Long adamant that no one would have to be vaccinated, authorities in some Russian regions are now asking certain public sector workers to be vaccinated.
It’s always voluntary, according to the Kremlin spokesman, because if you don’t want to do it, you can look for another job.
Anti-vax sentiment in Russia predates the COVID crisis, but the Kremlin has not helped itself in its drive to push its Sputnik V vaccine abroad.
Guatemala just complained about supply shortages; the Kremlin says vaccinating its own people is the priority.
This feeling is overdue.
“Sputnik aroused great mistrust from day one because it was touted as the first in the world and people understood that the political dimension was more important than its use for public health,” says Aleksey Levinson of the Independent Voting Center Levada.
“Besides, they thought – why are we helping others and not ourselves? “
The latest COVID-related Levada polls from April found that 62% of Russians were unwilling to take the vaccine while 56% were not afraid of contracting the virus.
That may have changed in the last couple of months, as the impact of the Delta variant has become more apparent. Russian state TV news is now filled with the COVID emergency in an attempt to get people to recognize the dangers.
But Russians are more willing to trust the vineyard than the evening news. It’s a classic crying wolf storyline. Why should people believe what the government says when they are so used to being told lies?
Nina Safronova has had COVID three times. In February, her mother died from the virus. She works in a medical equipment company and believes the company is saving money in terms of staff protection.
The last time she was hospitalized, she lost 75% of her lung capacity. She has trouble breathing when we speak.
“They put me in intensive care and my only thought for the first two days was that I had a child I had to live for, I was like a rhino with its horn against the wall with one thought – to live, live, live. “
Neither Ms. Safronova nor her mother took the vaccine. She had hoped she would develop antibodies.
Now she feels different. “You need to get vaccinated. It’s essential. If you get sick you won’t do it so badly, without such consequences, without endless stress, ”she said.
Authorities in Moscow say the full lockdown would be the last resort. Last week, they introduced the first major restrictions in a year.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the possibility of another lockdown was “not discussed”.
He said on Friday: “The president commented on the lockdown. No one wants lockdown. Lockout is not being discussed. Everyone should be vaccinated as soon as possible precisely to avoid such discussions. “
Now you need a QR code to sit in bars and restaurants around town, proving that you have been vaccinated, the virus in the past six months, or a recent PCR.
Foreigners have problems registering in the system due to bureaucratic issues with social security and payroll numbers. Secret service agents would be too.
The restrictions are timid. Until mid-July, the terraces are still open to code-less.
The absence of the kinds of restrictions seen across Europe since an initial two-month lockdown last April has heightened the feeling that a jab is unnecessary.
The Russian black market for fake vaccination certificates and fake QR codes is also flourishing, despite government threats to crack down. If the Russians think they can get around a rule, they will.
“In the UK I know it feels like a collective effort to be locked up for most of a year or more, so the vaccine – and everyone is doing it – is like a way out back to a normal life, ”explains Martin Houldsworth, a British expatriate. “Whereas here it’s like a normal life for a long time. “
It may not seem normal any longer. As with most vaccines, the effectiveness of Sputnik V, which the majority of vaccinated Russians have taken, is reduced against the Delta variant.
The Kremlin has admitted that it will not meet its goal of fully inoculating 60% of the population by September.
Booster shots have also started, but significant catch-up is needed for the vaccine to have a chance of overtaking the variant.
The irony is that for an authoritarian state, playing on liberal democracy has not borne fruit. “Russians don’t pay much attention to messages that come from above if it’s some kind of slogans, calls and statements,” says Aleksey Levinson of Levada.
“For them it’s not something to pay attention to, they don’t think they have to obey. ”