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Moscow registers record Covid-19 cases amid stuttering vaccination programme

·4-min read
Russian people stand in line waiting to receive an injection of Russia’s Sputnik V (EPA)
Russian people stand in line waiting to receive an injection of Russia’s Sputnik V (EPA)

Across the world, life is getting back to normal. Hotspots in US and Britain are no longer following an efficient vaccine rollout. Israel and Bahrain, which led from the start, have largely beaten the virus. Europe is cautiously peeling back restrictions.

Russia is doing things a different way.

A look at the headlines from the last three days gives an idea of where things are headed. St Petersburg is once again "running out of Covid beds." The town of Vladimir already has run out — there, an ambulance drove up to the regional government in protest after being turned away from all the local hospitals. Chelyabinsk and Novokuznetsk have declared "critical emergencies.”

On Friday, Moscow reported 9056 new Covid diagnoses, a record.

The negative dynamics appear to have been caused by the appearance of more virulent mutations of the virus inside Russia and the withering failure of the country’s vaccination campaign.

Remarkably for a country that claimed the world’s first Coronavirus vaccine in September, just 12.2 percent of Russians had received jabs as of June. The figure is even worse in Moscow — just 7.9 per cent. By comparison, 61.1 percent of Brits have been vaccinated.

Some of those who refuse to take Sputnik V — still the only reliable vaccine widely available in Russia — say they are driven by a distrust of the government. But the Kremlin has hardly encouraged them to take another position. For months, Vladimir Putin refused to take a jab, and then said he’d had one secretly.

Given the concentric rings of bio-security that still follow the Russian president — including quarantine and multiple PCR testing — some have doubted he was even vaccinated.

Russian authorities have swung between despotic controls and the almost complete absence of them since the appearance of the virus in 2020.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin was initially the figurehead of the hawkish wing, and was the architect of some of the world’s harshest lockdowns in April 2020. But his caution was eventually over-ruled by the Kremlin. In Summer 2020, a moment when Vladimir Putin was seeking support for constitutional tweaks to stay in power, the Kremlin essentially declared it had won the battle with Covid.

Yet the virus never went away. Excess death statistics, an objective way of measuring Covid impact, suggest that Russia lost 475,000 people over the period to April. If accurate, that would make Russia the fourth most badly hit nation on earth.

Healthcare professionals, wearing special protective clothing, continue working to combat coronavirus in the capital Moscow (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Healthcare professionals, wearing special protective clothing, continue working to combat coronavirus in the capital Moscow (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Amid the confusion and mixed messages, Russians have taken few precautions. They have gone to bars, discos and restaurants — and generally not worn masks. Earlier this week, Anna Popova, the head of Russia’s health watchdog, lamented what she described as "complete nihilism," or disregard for the few rules she has put in place.

With the numbers of infections in a largely unvaccinated population reaching alarming levels, caution appears to be now back in fashion.

Mayor Sobyanin has also returned to the fray, introducing a series of emergency measures to mitigate a third wave.

Out go many of the freedoms that marked Russia from the rest of the world. Bars, clubs and restaurants will be forced to shutter at 11pm. Large gatherings of more than 1000 people are to be banned. Vaccination is being made obligatory for 60% of workers in service industries.

Mr Sobyanin has also introduced more controversial measures to encourage vaccine take-up. On the one hand, doctors will now refuse non-emergency medical care to those who cannot prove they have antibody protection to Covid. On another, a pilot project will allow several bars and clubs to stay open past the 11pm curfew to those with a negative PCR test.

That, critics noted, would split Russians into two castes: those that have the vaccine and those that do not.

The Kremlin, which has not always seen eye to eye with Mr Sobyanin on Covid-19, said it found "no problem" with the new approach. Speaking with journalists on Friday, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the state had a responsibility to do anything to avoid deaths:

"The most frightening split of all is not this one - but between those Russians who are intubated in intensive care, and those who aren’t."

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