Economy Politics Society 21 June 2021

Vaccination failure and Delta variant push Russia toward catastrophic coronavirus third wave

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.