Weekly 20 June 2021

Delta variant spike

Hello! This week our top story is about an unfolding coronavirus catastrophe in Moscow where daily cases are now at their highest level since the start of the pandemic. We also look at why Russian state television got so excited about the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva, and government proposals to restrict access to porn sites.

Vaccination failure fuels Moscow coronavirus explosion

Official unwillingness to impose unpopular coronavirus restrictions ahead of September parliamentary elections, distrust of Russia’s vaccines and a new coronavirus variant combined last week to put Moscow at the epicenter of a new wave of the pandemic. 

What’s happening? 

The coronavirus situation in Moscow has lurched from worrying to verging on catastrophic in just a week. On June 10, City Hall recorded 5,245 daily infections. By Friday this had risen to 9,056 — an absolute record for daily cases. All together, the number of people infected in Moscow has tripled in less than two weeks. As in previous waves, Moscow leads the way. But the rest of the country is catching up and nationwide week-on-week infection rates were up 34.4 percent last week (in Moscow, the increase was 54.4 percent). Deaths were up 14 percent.

Why? 

The main cause of the new surge in infections is the so-called Delta variant (also known as the Indian variant), which was officially recorded in Russia for the first time just a month ago. According to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, the Delta variant is being found in 89.3 percent of new infections.

This new strain might not have been so dangerous were it not for the failure of Russia’s vaccination programme. Despite Russia being the first country in the world to register a coronavirus vaccine, Russians have been deeply unwilling to get jabbed. There are many reasons for this — people are generally suspicious of vaccines, television channels have been insisting for months that coronavirus has been defeated, prompting many to wonder why they need a vaccine against a vanquished disease, and the hasty registration of the vaccine put people off amid fears about insufficient trialing.

According to official data, about 16.1 million Russians are fully vaccinated. That’s about 11 percent of the population, fewer than in any European country except North Macedonia. It’s one third less than the European Union average and a fifth of the rate in the U.S. or United Kingdom. In Moscow, where vaccinations are available in almost any shopping mall, the rate is pretty much the same as elsewhere in Russia. According to Sobyanin, 1.5 million people have had both jabs – 11.8 percent of the city’s population.

The situation is an “anti-vax catastrophe” that looks almost impossible to fix, according to Pavel Brand, a doctor and medical director of one of Russia’s biggest chains of clinics. “A situation where only 10 percent are vaccinated is arguably worse than if we vaccinated nobody at all. It increases the risk of new mutations while meaning there is no chance of the herd immunity that could protect against all this,” he said. 

The official response 

The response of the Moscow authorities has included ordering the compulsory vaccination of 60 percent of workers in the hospitality sector. Five other Russian regions, including Moscow and Leningrad regions, followed suit. In St. Petersburg, the authorities have ordered all public sector employees to get the job. Businessmen who spoke to The Bell are split on the benefits of compulsory vaccines: some are supportive, believing their employees are willing to get injected. Others, such as the head of prominent chain Dodo Pizza, said 70 percent of his staff are opposed to vaccines and, if obliged to get a jab, are likely to quit their jobs.

The issue of migrant workers is another question altogether. There are many migrants working in hospitality but, according to Russian law, they are not eligible for a vaccine. A source close to City Hall admitted to The Bell that they are hoping migrants make up less than 40 percent of the workforce (since only 60 percent need to be vaccinated). However, businessmen have already told officials that many of them employ a higher percentage of migrant workers. Sobyanin is considering allowing migrants to get vaccines, but a decision depends on “how bad it gets,” according to the City Hall source.

Attempts at containment  

Apart from compulsion, other measures in place to encourage people to get vaccinated include lotteries (in Moscow, if you are vaccinated you could win a car, in Moscow Region, an apartment) and restrictions on routine medical care for the unvaccinated.

There are also plans for ‘COVID-free’ restaurants open only to vaccinated people who have downloaded a QR code from a government website. In addition, only people with this QR code would be allowed into restaurants and bars between 11pm and 6am. Right now, all such venues are closed at night — but this doesn’t stop huge crowds of people gathering in downtown Moscow outside bars and shops selling alcohol and takeaway food.

Black market vaccines 

Russia wouldn’t be Russia if there wasn’t a lively black market in vaccination certificates. Media outlets Forbes and Baza have described how key players in this market recently redoubled their efforts. According to Forbes, in the first two weeks of June there were 500 newly-registered domain names for selling vaccination certificates (in addition to 360 that registered in May). Certificates are also sold on messaging app Telegram and on darknet forums, which are, in normal times, usually engaged in hacking and cashing in on data theft.

False vaccination certificates are mostly obtained in the same way. The seller of the fake certificate contacts a medic with access to vaccine shots who opens a dose and pours it away (crazy as it sounds) then records the details of the jab in the state system. The ‘recipient’ can even use their personal account to record details of imaginary side-effects. Three weeks later, the same thing happens for the second shot and the buyer is handed a certificate. The whole process costs a few hundred dollars.

Forbes journalists reported the story of a person from the southern city of Orenburg whose local doctor offered him a fake certificate for free because, even though people don’t want the vaccine, medical staff have targets to meet. He thanked her with a box of chocolates. 

A few days after the stories in Forbes and Baza, independent media outlet Meduza quoted an anonymous City Hall source saying the city is cracking down on fake certificates.  

Why the world should care 

There is evidence of a link between propaganda designed to crush critical thinking in Russia and the widespread, irrational fear of vaccines. There is also an obvious connection between the authorities’ refusal to introduce unpopular lockdown measures — that could save lives — and their fear of losing support ahead of the upcoming elections.

 

Putin, Biden and a frenzy of Russian propaganda

Nobody expected much from the Geneva summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his counterpart Joe Biden, and not much was delivered. None of the major disputes between Russia and the U.S. moved closer to a resolution, even though the talks apparently went well. But the summit was a very big event for Russian state media.

What did they talk about? 

The main — indeed only — concrete decision to be taken at the meeting was apparently an agreement to return the two countries’ ambassadors to Washington and Moscow. The presidents also discussed an exchange of prisoners. And Biden handed Putin a list of 16 critical infrastructure objects that Russia must not attack – or the U.S. will respond in kind. Putin, as usual, said the U.S. was responsible for most of the world’s cyberattacks.

The two presidents discussed Ukraine but nothing new was announced. And Biden raised the question of political prisoners and the pressure on the Russian opposition, to which Putin responded that jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny knew exactly what he was doing (although, as always, Putin did not utter Navalny’s name).

What does it mean? 

All the political experts who spoke to The Bell said that the meeting went more or less as expected, and maybe a little better. Each president put on a performance that would play well at home: while Biden presented himself as a reasonable, professional politician who lectured Putin on human rights, Putin portrayed himself as a force with which to be reckoned and an important leader on the global stage.

What was the reaction in Russia? 

Independent media outlets wrote relatively little about the summit, simply because much of it happened behind closed doors. But pro-Kremlin media took a different approach. “The leaders greeted each other cautiously, as if there was nothing for them to discuss. But we certainly have things to discuss!” – was one phrase from a presenter on state-owned Rossiya-24 that neatly summed up state media coverage.

Every last detail of the meeting was analyzed by state-controlled television. When Putin disembarked from his plane we were told he was obviously in an “energetic mood”. While Putin sat in an ‘open pose’, Biden was apparently ‘closed’ – and TV anchors desperately speculated what it might mean. And when Putin was positioned on the right for a photoshoot, some claimed that, according to the ‘language of protocol’, it meant Putin was in charge. 

This all reached its apogee in a report on Rossiya-24 titled ‘Open Putin and Closed Biden: images you’ve never seen before’. Reporter Pavel Zarubin was given access to the holiest of holies: the presidential jet on its way to Geneva. The report was delivered in a reverential tone: we saw Putin shuffling papers and making notes (“He didn’t sleep a wink on the four-hour flight, preparing for the meeting,” murmured Zarubin as he stood by the president’s desk). The camera picked out a rolled up tie: “the president will put it on when he leaves the plane,” Zarubin informed his viewers. Later, Zarubin made it to the villa where the summit took place and asked one of Putin’s aides a challenging question: “how are you feeling?”

Why the world should care

There is very little information on which to base any conclusions about the summit. But it’s easy to agree with Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, who said that Russia has finally given up pretending it is following a ‘Western’ path. 

 

Russia proposes state to control access to porn

The Russian agency responsible for regulating online content is proposing to limit access to pornography by making it available exclusively via state-run services. The authorities have long tried to combat pornography, but their efforts have met little success.

  • Newspaper Kommersant published an article Wednesday about watchdog Roskomnadzor’s plans to limit access to pornography. The idea is to make adult content available exclusively through state websites — blocking access for minors.
  • The plan is to divide pornography into ‘lawful’ and ‘unlawful’ content, according to Kommersant. However, it’s not clear how these categories will be defined.
  • The media suggested that child porn and ‘offensive’ porn will be deemed unlawful (Roskomnadzor, in particular, regards rape depictions as ‘offensive’). Lawful content would include “naturalistic images” of contacts between mutually consenting adults. The state-provided service would only permit access to lawful content.
  • There is much that is not clear about how this would work in practice — particularly given that many sites host content that falls into both categories.
  • At present, individuals are not forbidden from looking at porn in Russia. However, attempting to distribute pornographic material — even via a repost on social media — can lead to legal action. In theory, the offence can be punished with a prison term, but, in practice, suspended sentences are far more common.
  • The world’s leading porn sites, YouPorn and PornHub, were blocked in Russia for about six months in 2016 and 2017. However, Russians still accessed them using VPN. Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, VKontakte, allows access to material from PornHub. However, this method is not without peril: a few years ago a bot appeared that enabled users to identify which of their friends were signed up to PornHub. In the first week of the pandemic in March 2020, PornHub reported a 1.5-fold spike in traffic from Russia (a trend replicated in many other countries).
  • It’s hard to find convincing figures about the size of the audience for porn sites in Russia. Market research company Mediascope put it at 11 percent of the adult population in 2018. For comparison, 87 percent of men and 28.5 percent of women in the U.S. are reckoned to view pornography (we can only guess why there is such a huge difference). Russia’s most popular porn site is French site Xvideos.

Why the world should care

It’s not yet clear how far Roskomnadzor is prepared to go in its battle against porn, nor whether it has influential backers. But if this does happen, it means new content will shift to the darknet or Telegram channels — and Russians will have another reason to install a VPN.