Russia Grappling With Soaring COVID Cases Amid Vaccine Hesitancy
Wealthy Russians didn’t delay their escape.
Ahead of the imposition this week of new nationwide pandemic restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, they headed to Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Or to Black Sea resorts, such as Sochi, which was anticipating an influx this week of 100,000 tourists from northern Russia.
Travel agencies reported bookings soaring for tour packages.
The Kremlin hopes the new restrictions, which will see Russians required to take paid leave from October 30 to November 7, will slow record infections and deaths. Russian officials have sought to discourage travel but to little avail.
Last week, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow, “Epidemiologists have raised concerns that many people are planning to go on trips and travel.”
Whether the weeklong involuntary public holiday will slow the pace of infections remains to be seen, say health experts. The latest wave of the pandemic — the country’s fourth and most deadly — has been fueled by widespread vaccine hesitancy.
Only 32% percent of Russia’s population is fully vaccinated, and according to a survey published this week by the Levada Center, a Moscow-based pollster, half of the respondents said they are unafraid of contracting the coronavirus. And three out of four unvaccinated Russians aren’t planning to get inoculated, according to an opinion poll conducted last month by international pollster Gallup.
Former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev publicly warned Monday of the urgency of persuading more Russians to get vaccinated.
“If we do not find ways to convince people of their irresponsibility, even, to put it bluntly, their antisocial behavior, we will face even more difficult times,” he said. Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is widely available.
In the last few weeks, the number of recorded COVID-19 cases has risen inexorably, with records broken day after day. By ordering most state organizations and private businesses to stop work, except for those involved in maintaining critical infrastructure, the Kremlin hopes the trend can be reversed.
Five regions — Kursk, Nizhny Novgorod, Perm, Samara and Voronezh — started the non-work period earlier than others and are likely to see their off-work period extended beyond November 7. The governor of Novgorod, Andrey Nikitin, has already announced he is prolonging the non-work period in his region by an additional week.
“We’re extending the period of non-working days by one week, with the preservation of wages,” Nikitin announced Monday.
Rosstat, the Russian government’s statistics department, reported Friday that 201,945 people died from all causes during the month of September — a 45% jump from the same month in 2019. Excess deaths — a measure comparing fatalities from all causes to pre-pandemic levels — is seen by some experts as a more robust indicator of pandemic deaths, because the official coronavirus tallies leave out many people who died without being tested.
The Kremlin has been accused of playing down the COVID-19 death toll since the start of the pandemic. According to the official pandemic tally, 235,000 Russian deaths are COVID-related, the fourth-highest in the world. But excess deaths since the arrival of the coronavirus have reached almost 750,000.
Officially, more than 8.5 million infections have been recorded in the country since the pandemic struck. On Monday, Russia health officials reported more than 40,000 fresh coronavirus cases.
The pressure on the country’s health service is mounting, which the Kremlin is now acknowledging. Some regions have reported oxygen shortages because of surging cases.
“Of course, the situation is not straightforward. Beds are filled to a large extent, and these days, the situation is not becoming easier,” Peskov told reporters in the Russian capital. “This is an excessive and extraordinary burden on our doctors, who are demonstrating heroism with what is happening.”
Shortly before he spoke, the state-run Tass news agency reported the Kremlin is planning to introduce a nationwide digital pass system similar to the European Union’s which will allow Russians to show proof of vaccination or recent recovery from the coronavirus. Entry to public buildings and events is likely to be restricted to those armed with a digital pass. Many regions have already implemented a pass system and have mandated vaccinations for their public workers.
Officials hope the digital pass system will undermine a roaring trade in counterfeit health certificates. The 47News outlet, which is based in St. Petersburg, reported this week on the sophisticated operations of counterfeiters who offer falsified COVID-19 test certificates. It said clients are charged 2,550 rubles ($36) to receive a fake negative test result within three hours; forged documents contain a QR code that links to a fake laboratory website.