Russia has introduced tough new restrictions including regional lockdowns and compulsory vaccinations in a belated response to a third coronavirus wave sweeping the country.
President Vladimir Putin has rowed back from his triumphalist claims about Russia’s “victory” over the pandemic and admitted that the situation had “taken a turn for the worse” last week as coronavirus cases rocketed.
Russia recorded 20,538 coronavirus cases on Sunday, among its highest numbers since January and more than double the average just a month earlier.
Moscow recorded 114 coronavirus deaths on Sunday, a record during the pandemic.
Despite the vaccine being free and open to all since December, only 16.7m of Russia’s 145m population, or about 13 per cent, have had two shots in a country where mistrust of the state and its medical system is high.
Moscow has responded by requiring most people aged 18 to 60 to be vaccinated and forcing anyone who wants to visit a restaurant from next week to show a QR code proving they have had the vaccine, been sick with Covid-19 in the past six months, or had a negative PCR result in the past three days.
Although Russia has said as much as 90 per cent of the rise in cases is because of the more aggressive Delta variant that emerged in India, the jump also comes from a lackadaisical attitude to health restrictions among officials and the public alike, according to Vasily Vlasov, a professor of epidemiology at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.
“They stopped trying to prevent the infection from spreading. Every public place opened up, all cinemas, theatres and concert halls. People stopped wearing masks, and as a result that created highly favourable conditions for [the virus] to grow,” Vlasov said.
With parliamentary elections due in September and Russians highly reluctant to face another lockdown, the Kremlin has put its faith in three domestically produced vaccines and set a target of inoculating 60 per cent of the population by the autumn.
The developers of Sputnik V, Russia’s main vaccine, have admitted it may, like others, be less effective against the Delta strain and rowed back on claims made in April that it could provide patients with immunity “for the rest of their lives”. Health officials are now calling on Russians to get shots twice a year when infection rates rise.
As many as 62 per cent of Russians do not plan to get vaccinated, according to a poll by the independent Levada Center in May, while 55 per cent are not afraid of catching the disease.
Even though a quarter of the population may currently have immunity, Russians’ reluctance to get vaccinated means the country needs to inoculate an additional 40 per cent of its population by autumn, a goal impossible at current rates, according to independent demographer Alexei Raksha.
The infection rates may not peak until the first half of July, meaning that Russia will not see the true cost of the third wave until later next month when “the death rate will be absolutely awful”, Raksha added.
With vaccination as unpopular as last year’s lockdowns, the Kremlin has delegated responsibility to local officials led by Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who is in turn passing the burden to employers.
“To fundamentally solve this problem, we need to get vaccinated or go into lockdown,” Sobyanin told state TV on Saturday.
Moscow now requires all public employees and service workers to be vaccinated, with penalties for employers who fail to meet a 60 per cent target by August 15 and the threat of furlough for staff who refuse.
“It’s on a voluntary basis, because you can get a different job,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday.
Several other regions have followed suit, introducing forms of compulsory vaccination in 18 provinces, a ban on the unvaccinated visiting Black Sea resorts, and a full lockdown in Buryatia near Lake Baikal.
But Russia’s patchwork response means mass events in some cities have gone ahead, notably the Euro 2020 football tournament and a school leavers’ festival in St Petersburg.
Officials claim that the threat of unemployment has encouraged Muscovites to get vaccinated at four or five times the previous rate. Several regions have said they temporarily ran out of vaccine supplies amid increased demand.
Some of the new initiatives recall Moscow’s deeply unpopular measures during the first wave of coronavirus, when Muscovites had to get QR codes allowing them to leave the house only on certain days of the week and the city introduced fines for people caught not wearing plastic gloves in addition to masks. The city still requires anyone who tests positive to send several selfies a day through a notoriously intrusive and bug-prone app.
Last year, Russia’s Covid-19 restrictions were hurriedly rolled back ahead of a vote that allowed Putin to extend his rule potentially until 2036. Putin himself and most of his top officials are rarely seen wearing masks in public, leading many Russians to follow suit.
“The government set a trap for themselves, because they convinced Putin that Russia had dealt with the virus very efficiently, that we have an excellent healthcare system, and the best vaccine in the world,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik.
“When cases go up, Putin demands they do something to make the number of infected go down immediately. And they bring him some reports about how they did something. [ . . .] Just to fill out a piece of paper to show that they’re doing something,” Stanovaya added.
Restaurant owners who scrambled to vaccinate their staff, meanwhile, are now cutting back on supply orders in anticipation of an anticipated decline in footfall of up to 90 per cent.
“It’s basically another lockdown,” said Takhir Kholikberdiev, who owns a chain of steak and barbecue restaurants in Moscow. “Are some weirdos going to get tested to go to a restaurant? [ . . .] If a guy asks a girl on a date, who pays for her PCR?”