FOR THE past year the Kremlin has trumpeted its success in fighting covid-19. It eschewed lockdowns and hailed its home-grown Sputnik V vaccine. In early June, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, boasted to thousands of guests at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, billed as the world’s largest post-pandemic international gathering, that “the current situation in Russia allows us to hold such events without any particular risk of spreading the infection.”
In fact, by the time Mr Putin was addressing his powwow, Russian doctors had for several weeks been registering an alarming rise in infections and deaths. A month later, Russia is in the midst of its third and most severe wave of covid-19, with more people dying daily than at any point during the pandemic (see chart).
The number of new daily cases is currently around 25,000, somewhat fewer than in Britain, and rising. But whereas in Britain this surge has translated into an average of 18 daily deaths over the past week, in Russia it has resulted in an average of 670 deaths a day.
The contrast is all the more striking because Russia was the first country in the world to approve a working vaccine, one based on the same science as the British-Swedish AstraZeneca one and apparently just as effective. But whereas in Britain 78% of the population has received at least one jab, in Russia the proportion is only 20%. The difference is not the availability or the efficacy of the jab, but people’s trust in the government and its vaccines.
All of this could have been avoided. A year ago the government decided to lift a partial lockdown (Mr Putin called it “a holiday”), hoping to save itself money and to prop up the president’s faltering popularity after a prolonged slump in incomes. Mr Putin’s ratings did go back up—but so did the risk of infection.
As the second wave hit Europe in late autumn last year, the Kremlin chose not to spend money on supporting people and businesses through a new lockdown. It left people to their own devices, playing down the risks, with Mr Putin boasting about the contrast between lifeless European cities and Moscow, where restaurants, theatres and shops stayed open.
But the numbers lied. By February 2021 Russia had one of the world’s highest excess mortality rates, according to numbers compiled by The Economist. At that point it had registered 460,000 more deaths than normal, while its official covid-19 death toll was a more modest 85,000. But by in effect removing all restrictions and fiddling the numbers, the government managed to create a false sense of security.
This was just when people should have been urged to get vaccinated, says Denis Volkov of the Levada Centre, an independent pollster. Despite the staggering true number of deaths, in February his polling found that 57% of people were not worried about catching the virus. Most worryingly, two-thirds of the country rejected the idea of getting vaccinated.
The government, meanwhile, had other priorities, such as jailing Alexei Navalny, the most prominent opposition figure, and crushing street protests. This is where social-distancing rules came in handy. Mr Navalny’s associates were put under house arrest for “urging the public to violate epidemiological restrictions”. At the same time Mr Putin packed 80,000 people into the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow for a ceremony to mark the seventh anniversary of the annexation of Crimea.
Many Russians concluded that the rules were merely a government ploy, to be evaded like so many of its prescriptions. They took a similarly dismissive view of the Sputnik V vaccine after its launch, with much fanfare, in early December.
Sputnik V was authorised before the results of its phase-3 clinical trials were ready. Once these were published, questions were raised about some inconsistencies and data availability, says Boris Reizis, a professor of immunology at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. Still, he says, the data suggest that Sputnik V is at least as safe and effective as other adenovirus-based vaccines, such as those made by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. But the damage had been done.
To be sure, confidence in vaccines is fragile everywhere. But in Russia nobody has done more to undermine such confidence than the Kremlin and its loyal, conspiracy-peddling media. Mr Putin has hijacked Sputnik V for the purpose of geopolitical point-scoring. Yet he dithered with his own vaccination until the end of March and refused to be photographed being injected, despite his usual penchant for bare-chested publicity stunts. He has also suggested that vaccines from other countries are unsafe.
That has done little to reassure the many Russians who expect their government to lie to them. They have good reason: it turns out that some people who were told they were getting Sputnik V were in fact given EpiVacCorona, another Russian vaccine praised by Mr Putin, but about which there are serious concerns. Hardly any countries have approved it.
Failing to win trust, Russian authorities are resorting to sticks and carrots. In Moscow, restaurants and cafés are allowed to serve people indoors only if they have a QR code proving they have been vaccinated. Hospitals refuse routine treatment to anyone without a jab. Public-sector and service workers have been ordered to get vaccinated. But although more people are now signing up for jabs, there is a side-effect: a thriving black market for fake vaccination certificates, QR codes and medical exemptions. None of this bodes well for hospitals across the country, as the numbers continue to mount. ■
All our stories relating to the pandemic and the vaccines can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also find trackers showing the global roll-out of vaccines, excess deaths by country and the virus’s spread across Europe and America.
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “How not to do it”