Jens Siegert: Russia and Coronavirus – an interim assessment

2 April 2020

by Jens Siegert

Source: Russland-Blog

In comparison to most European states, Russia had a head start when it came to tackling the Coronavirus. By the end of January, Russia had already banned travel to China, and shortly after travel from China was also limited. Chinese citizens in Moscow were put under special surveillance. The first two recorded infections (in Siberia) were of Chinese citizens and they were quickly quarantined. The virus began to be referred to predominantly as the “Chinese virus” in the Russian press. 

The State continues to praise itself for its quick and “decisive” reaction. This is precisely why Russia has a good chance of preventing the epidemic from becoming as severe as it has in many EU countries. Tests were rapidly carried out across Russia, especially on those entering the country. No one has been officially allowed to enter the country without a test since mid-March of last year. This, and a series of other measures, are what the State leadership claim to have contributed to Russia having far fewer recorded Coronavirus infections and almost no Coronavirus-related deaths (as of 2 April 2020: 3548 infections and 30 deaths).

There are several reasons to doubt this interpretation:

For a long time, the tests were only carried out very selectively, mainly on people arriving from abroad and their contacts. People with symptoms but without contact to these risk persons were hardly tested.

Until the end of March, this testing policy was also supported by the State. Officials portrayed the virus as an external threat against which the country was being protected. There was hardly any talk about risks of the virus being passed around within the country. Accordingly, many people in the country did not take the danger seriously. Even by mid-March, twice as many people believed that the sharp devaluation of the rouble (as a result of the drop in oil prices) was a much greater concern than the virus.

Initially, the only authorised test was from a laboratory in Novosibirsk. Many publications describe it as comparatively inaccurate. This means there is a danger that many people who test negative are actually carrying the virus. Also, official infection numbers lagged behind because tests carried out in Moscow, the centre of infection, had to be checked and confirmed by the Novosibirsk laboratory before inclusion in the official statistics. For this, the test samples had to be brought to Siberia by plane. The high workload of the laboratory delayed the test results further. This only changed on 23 March, when more laboratories were approved, and positive tests were included in the statistics immediately after the first test result on site. In the international discussion, it is now agreed that there is a direct connection between test frequency, test accuracy, test criteria and the case numbers published in the statistics.

A report from mid-March by a Russian Doctors’ Union close to Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation brought to light a suspicious increase in pneumonia cases of up to 30% in Moscow in the first quarter of 2020, compared to the same quarter last year. Doctors suspect that these cases are masking a larger number of coronavirus deaths.

In Russia, there is a fundamental distrust of the State and its healthcare system. I know many people (actually most of them) who say that even if they had symptoms but were not seriously ill, they would not call the doctor because they do not trust the Russian State (including its healthcare system). They don’t trust its competence, and they don’t trust that it actually cares about helping people, and not just about helping itself. 

Official Russian statistics are unreliable even in non-crisis times. There are several reasons for this. You could say that withholding bad news is something of a habit for Russia’s leadership. At the same time, hardly any subordinates want to report bad news upwards. No one knows the extent to which data has been manipulated (or even creatively interpreted and compiled) at the bottom to produce numbers that are convenient to those at the top. From crime rates to economic data, this behaviour is well documented, and I can think of no reason why the Coronavirus case should be any different. Rather the opposite.

After the severity of the crisis began to be realised, as it was everywhere, slowly and then with increasing speed, the Russian government was faced with the same question as all other states: How can the people, especially the elderly and the vulnerable, best be protected without putting too much strain on the economy? However, in Russia’s case there exists a peculiarity. The stability of the political system (I emphasise, the system, not the government) depends on the popularity of its leader, Vladimir Putin, much more than in democratic states. Therefore, every action by the Kremlin is scrutinised more than elsewhere to see what effect it has on Putin’s popularity. In other words, there is a tendency in Russia to base decisions on political necessity, rather than on facts or evidence.

To make matters worse, just when the Coronavirus epidemic in China became a global pandemic, Putin declared that he might want to remain president after 2024. Many observers, including myself, do not consider this a coincidence. It appears as though the Kremlin wanted to use the (justifiably) overwhelming attention on the pandemic as a distraction from expected opposition. This worked in their favour. In a lightning-fast action, the constitutional amendments were passed through the State Duma, the Federation Council, the regional parliaments and the Constitutional Court in less than a week. The constitutional vote was originally scheduled for 22 April, and eventually held between 25 June and 1 July 2020. Any minor opposition there was was barely heard and in the West people were preoccupied with the fight against COVID-19. But then the events came to a head. 

Around 20 March, it started to become clear that even Russia would not be able to sit out the virus. While the Kremlin spokesman and the government were still declaring that they had everything under control, Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, who had been appointed by Putin as the country’s anti-Coronavirus coordinator, was imposing new and ever stricter restrictions on the inhabitants of the city of 15 million almost every day. On 23 March, tests were extended to other groups and laboratories in Moscow were approved for testing.

On 24 March, a video appeared on the Kremlin website showing Putin in one of his residences in the Moscow countryside joined by Sobyanin. The conversation, which lasted around six minutes, was unique in the way that it was mainly Sobyanin who spoke, Putin merely listened and only occasionally made comments in agreement. Sobyanin said that there were ‘far more’ cases of infection than the official statistics showed. The country should not be lulled into a sense of security. And Putin cradled his head.

This strange role reversal deserves a little more attention. Two explanations are possible. Given Putin’s notorious risk aversion (quite contrary to his prevailing image), it is quite conceivable that Sobyanin was pushed to the forefront because the situation is as messy as it is everywhere else in the world. Putin has nothing to gain until it is clear how the virus can be defeated. Should Sobyanin’s ever-tougher measures fail, it would be him and not Putin on the line. If these measures are successful, Putin could still paint himself as the hero of the moment. After all, he was the one who appointed Sobyanin as crisis commissioner.

If there were such considerations, they did not last long. That same day, Putin was broadcasted visiting the main COVID-19 hospital on the outskirts of Moscow. There was something ghostly about this scene. Putin marched through the hospital corridors in front of a group of men in white protective clothing, wearing a canary-yellow protective suit with a breathing mask exactly like the one used by the heroes of the US TV series Breaking Bad when cooking crystal meth. The hospital’s chief physician, Denis Prozenko, told his president that he thought a severe course of the pandemic, an ‘Italian scenario,’ was quite possible. Only with luck would it be possible to avoid this and end up with an ‘Asian scenario.’ Once again, Putin nodded almost in surrender. An interview with his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, may explain this unusual surrender of Putin’s (though Peskov’s sincerity should always be subject to doubt). This hospital visit, Peskov said, had been ‘unexpected and unprepared for.’ But now the new message to the public was clear. Interestingly, it was the same as Angela Merkel’s in her televised address to the Germans: the virus is serious, and the Kremlin wants everyone in Russia to take it seriously.

A small interjection: On 30 March, Russian media reported that chief physician Prozenko had tested positive for the virus. A photo surfaced on social media showing Putin shaking hands with Prozenko, both of them without gloves, protective suits or masks. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov hurriedly assured that Putin would be tested regularly. This had already been done after the hospital visit, with negative results.

The day after the hospital visit, on 25 March, Putin addressed the population in a 17-minute televised speech. He began with the implicit (if not explicit) admission that the previous strategy to deal with the pandemic had failed: ‘protection against the epidemic’ was ‘objectively impossible’ due to Russia’s ‘geographical location.’ Then he announced two political and countless economic measures. The vote on the constitutional amendments was then postponed indefinitely and the next week (from 30 March to 3 April) was declared work-free with full wage compensation. The economic measures announced were similar to programmes in other countries, though they fell far short of those in the EU or the USA. They were all designed to help citizens and businesses survive the crisis: state guarantees for businesses, tax deferrals, consumer credit deferrals and more.

However, this sharp and unexpected U-turn did not get through to most of the public, at least not quickly enough. This was facilitated by the fact that neither Putin nor other high-ranking politicians nor the state media took much trouble to explain why all these measures were suddenly necessary, shortly after they had projected an image of having ‘everything under control.’ Instead, there was more talk of bans and tougher penalties for non-compliance. The Duma quickly began to change laws accordingly. The lack of knowledge about the extent and nature of the pandemic was as great as the carelessness of the population. The willingness to restrict oneself remained small, and everyday life did not change. Consequently, only five days after Putin’s speech, Mayor Sobyanin imposed a de facto ban on going out in Moscow from 30 March. The Kremlin then recommended that all other Russian regions enforce similar measures.

In Germany and the EU, there is, amongst other things, much discussion about the dangers posed by placing so many restrictions on civil liberties in order to fight the pandemic. This kind of discussion is not central in opposition circles in Russia. This may have something to do with the fact that the Russian State under Putin, which is usually not especially considerate of civil rights, has been surprisingly hesitant with regards to the pandemic. This hesitancy is particularly surprising, as it would seem the perfect time to avoid international criticism in this area. At present (almost) all conceivable restrictions are considered justified even in the West – and a historical view would show that the Russian State and Putin in particular have a record of taking advantage of such opportunities.

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that the economic crisis due to the pandemic is rather a gift for the Kremlin, because the long-standing economic stagnation can now be quite easily explained by it and the resulting oil slump. Once again, it is made to look like all evil comes from outside Russia. It is also possible that this version of events was believed perhaps too strongly in the Kremlin itself and explains, at least in part, its delayed reaction to the pandemic. But the Kremlin’s strangely hesitant reaction also points out once again that the repressive power of the political regime is often considerably overestimated by many (especially in the West). Putin bases his power on a mixture of legitimacy, economic success and the selective persecution of dissidents and the opposition, which is often more of a deterrent than widespread repression. Political stability, as Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Centre, never tires of pointing out, is supported by the ‘passive acquiescence’ of a majority of the population rather than by active participation. This overestimation of the Kremlin’s repressive capabilities is one of its most important power resources.

The abrupt U-turn of 25 March shows how badly Putin misjudged the health, economic and thus also political threats posed by the pandemic. However, precisely because of its abruptness, the U-turn also shows that the regime has not forgotten to learn from mistakes and to change course.

A small PS: Despite all the criticism, which I find well-founded, of government action in Russia in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, deep down I have not yet lost hope that things won’t get as bad in Russia as they did in Italy, France or Spain, or perhaps not even as bad as in Germany. The hope, then, that for once, just once, Viktor Chernomyrdin won’t be right with his famous aphorism: ‘We wanted to do better, but it turned out the same as always.’ As the saying goes, hope always dies last. A German poet, however, had his own view on this in the 19th century: ‘Doch in allem, was wir hoffen, hat uns schon Verdruss getroffen’ or ‘But in everything we hope for, we have already been struck by frustration.’

Translated by Beth Cosgrove

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