By Alex Day
As Europe is engulfed by Covid-19, reports emerging from its largest and most populated nation have been suspiciously quiet. Considering Russia shares a large border with China, where the virus originated, and another border with Europe, recently termed the virus’ ‘epicentre’ by the WHO, logic would suggest Russia should also be dealing with a vast influx of cases. As Gary Kasparov humorously puts it: ‘Maps of the outbreak drew a suspiciously tidy ring around the largest nation on Earth, as if Russian dictator Vladimir Putin had simply banned the virus like he has free speech and opposition candidates.’
Originally, Putin insisted on using downplayed rhetoric to describe the virus, which he previously denounced as a purely ‘foreign threat’ that was ‘under control’. However, when reports of overwhelmed Russian hospitals began to emerge, many started to doubt the accuracy of Russia’s official statistics.
This week, the Kremlin has taken a U-turn. Prime Minister Mishustin announced that strict measures would be introduced to curb the spread of Covid-19 as even ‘official’ case numbers began to soar – borders and schools have been closed and mass gatherings prohibited, with economic support measures also announced earlier this week.
Despite this, Russia fell short of introducing mandatory lockdown measures – churches remain open, and with the common practice of kissing religious shrines, this is sure to hasten the spread of the virus. VICE News reported that 130,000 people visited a shrine of John the Baptist in St. Petersburg in mid-March, touching and kissing it, whilst church employees ‘didn’t have time’ to wipe it down in-between each visitor.
Seemingly contrary to Putin’s claim that the situation was ‘under control’, Russian prisoners have been ordered to start making facemasks – a decision that certainly implies desperation and emergency. There is no better indicator of the state’s concerns than propagandistic pictures of Vladimir Putin who, this week (accompanied by a camera crew), was pictured fully clad in protective attire when visiting a Russian hospital – his assured, confident stance seemingly projecting his classic, paternal image and the message that Putin has this all under control.
Worryingly, there are many reports from within Russia that dispute this idea. Doctors were previously ‘officially’ reporting outbreaks of pneumonia, but not of coronavirus. Russian doctors such as Anastasia Vasilyeva have stepped out to accuse the government of downplaying the official figures by misdiagnosing causes of death. ‘I am more than sure that even serious cases and deaths will be simply hidden from the population, and a completely different picture will be shown to the public, one that’s good for our government and Vladimir Putin. […] In my opinion, there are tens of thousands of cases.’
Russia’s primary concern seems to be the prevention of panic. Despite video footage capturing dozens of busloads of soldiers headed for Moscow, the state denied that this action was in any way related to the virus, stating: ‘No need to panic, these are planned troop redeployments.’
The issue with repressing panic is that this repression inadvertently curbs action. It is fear that drives many of us to act and implement behavioural change, which is the most effective way to mitigate the virus’ spread. Putin must give up his paternal image that assures his nation that the situation is, of course, under control. Instead, he must publicly concede the scale of the problem, producing the right amount of panic that will instil solidarity and most importantly action among his people – although this may compromise his autocratic, strong-man image, simple transparency and telling the truth has the potential to save thousands of lives.