Critics blame Kremlin denial and mixed messaging for pursuit of normality as deaths top 1,000 a day
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Pjotr Sauer in Moscow
Moscow’s streets were buzzing with energy on Friday evening. At Simach, a trendy bar and nightclub in the city centre, the small, sweaty dance floor was packed and a long queue of chatty people formed outside.
Looking at the crowd, it is easy to forget that Russia is at the centre of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, recording daily record deaths and infections just as global fatalities from the disease have fallen to their lowest level in a year.
“Thank God we can go to bars and there are no restrictions. I am against any lockdowns, they will destroy my business,“ said Natalia Draganova, 34, who runs a small clothes shop in the city.
Russia topped the symbolic figure of 1,000 daily deaths on Saturday for the first time since the start of the pandemic, and hit a new record in infection numbers on Monday with 34,325 cases reported.
Officials say the country is quickly running out of hospital beds and Russia’s chief doctor, Denis Protsenko, described the situation on Friday as “near critical”, with vaccinations at a standstill.
Several regions reintroduced QR codes for access to public places last week as well as mandatory vaccination for certain groups, but Moscow and St Petersburg – home to by far the biggest clusters of infections – have so far opted against new measures. The two cities are among the most open places in Europe.
For many like Draganova, talk of new restrictions brings back painful memories of March 2020, when Russia went into a full lockdown for more than two months. Small and medium-sized businesses ewere disproportionally hit because the authorities provided little support to private firms, preferring to spend their resources on state employees seen as the core of the Kremlin’s support.
“I almost lost everything, so I would like to avoid that scenario at all costs,” Draganova said, a sentiment echoed by many.
During the first coronavirus wave, 60% of Russian households said they had lost income as a result of the economic crisis.
“Russians have consistently shown more concern about the economic situation than the epidemiological one,” said Christian Fröhlich, a sociology professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics who studies public dissent.
“People have very low expectations from the government and don’t expect to receive any support during a lockdown. This helps explain why many prefer for the country to stay open despite the deaths.”
When Moscow did briefly introduce QR codes this summer, it quickly abandoned the programme after business owners complained of reduced revenues.
But it is not only the economy that has led Russians to seemingly accept life alongside Covid-19.
Polls show that 55% say they are unafraid of contracting the virus, and experts argue the Kremlin’s contradictory messaging has sown confusion and suspicion among the population.
The deputy speaker of Russia’s parliament, Petr Tolstoy, on Saturday issued a rare admission of the state’s failure to communicate the dangers of the pandemic to the public effectively.
“We have to be honest, the government lost the information campaign on the fight against coronavirus,” he said.
Denis Volkov, the director of the independent polling organisation the Levada Center, said the government had sent “far too many mixed messages to the public about the pandemic”, while state-owned media had spent an excessive amount of time downplaying the pandemic and ridiculing other nations for their harsh lockdowns.
“When the authorities finally started to take a more consistent position, it was already too late and many distrusted the official line,” he said.
One study also showed that nearly two-thirds of Russians believed coronavirus was a bioweapon created by humans.
Volkov also said the Kremlin had repeatedly declared victory over the pandemic, lifting lockdown measures ahead of politically important events.
At the height of infections in the summer of 2020, Moscow abruptly lifted all restrictions to push through the Victory Day parade, Russia’s annual show of military hardware, as well as the referendum on constitutional changes that allowed Vladimir Putin to run for further terms as president.
“You reap what you sow. Many stopped taking Covid seriously after being told over and over that pandemic was finished. This in turn is reflected in the lack of urgency to get the jab,” Volkov said.
Only a third of Russians have been vaccinated and opinion polls show that more than half of the population do not plan to get a shot. The country’s sluggish vaccination campaign has meant it has not broken the link between infections, hospital admissions and deaths as countries in the west have.
In an emotional post on Friday that underlined the nation’s perceived lax attitude towards the pandemic, Protsenko urged people to take the jab.
“People, it’s true, the coronavirus is not a joke or fiction,” he wrote on Telegram. “It’s amazing that you still need to convince people of that in the second year of the pandemic.”
While Moscovites partied and went out for brunch over the weekend, doctors on the coronavirus frontline also painted a dark picture of their reality.
“We can’t go on like this. We don’t have the stamina for another wave,” said Katerina, 24, a nurse working at the flagship Kommunarka hospital in Moscow. She is one of the many medical students mobilised since the start of the pandemic to work in hospitals across the country.
“Every day I see people die while the vaccine is just out there. It makes me so angry.”