MOSCOW—Around the world, more than 5,000 people have died from COVID-19 and European countries are closing their borders one after another, but authorities in Russia—adjacent to both Europe and China—continue acting as if people here in the motherland have some kind of magical immunity.
State officials shake hands at public meetings, go around without masks, and organize big public events, while the number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases in Russia has jumped from 63 to 93 overnight. The plague’s trolls, styling themselves coronavirus dissidents, spread fake news claiming the epidemic is “a project of the pharmaceutical companies.”
For three decades, even before the advent of social media, this same kind of conspiratorial misinformation helped HIV/AIDS spread across the country virtually unchecked, at a cost of more than 200,000 lives.
But in this case there’s a particular edge to it—an unmistakable political context. Russia’s parliament has just paved the way for Vladimir Putin to run in rubber-stamp elections and serve in office until he’s in his 80s. And then? Maybe longer. In effect, he’ll be president for life. In Russian terms, he’ll be the 21st century version of a czar. But there’s a hitch.
Although the Russian parliament passed the necessary amendments to the constitution on March 11 with a vote of 383 to 0, they are supposed to receive popular approval in a plebiscite scheduled for April 22. And if the coronavirus pandemic takes off in Russia before then—or, rather, can be seen to have taken off—the new czar might have to wait for his quasi-constitutional quasi-coronation. The Kremlin insists that in spite of the growing fear of an outbreak, the plebiscite will take place as scheduled.
So what we’re hearing from Putin is that there is “nothing critical” happening on the coronavirus front, the main sources of news about sick people in Russia are both fake and foreign: “Their goal is clear, to spread panic among our population,” Putin told a governmental conference on March 4.
This does not inspire confidence, especially among those who lived through Soviet times and remember such explanations about the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl in 1986, when Soviet leaders delayed telling citizens the truth at the cost of thousands of lives.
On Monday, Moscow’s city hall confirmed 53 diagnoses of coronavirus. The first one was registered on March 3. With the growing number of cases, there is increasing public suspicion that there are many more carriers than state television will acknowledge, either because they are asymptomatic, or misdiagnosed. There is also a rapidly growing public sentiment that officials will hide the facts deliberately, at least through April 22.
Meanwhile, after China carried out the biggest quarantine in recorded history, and as European countries are shutting down cinemas, bars, restaurants, factories, and eventually, as in Italy, emptying the streets, with the United States belatedly preparing to follow suit, Moscow opened a St. Patrick’s Day Irish Film Festival at one of its major movie theaters—one of more than 600 here in the capital. More than 160 drama and musical theaters also continue to work. Though the situation is rapidly changing: on Sunday, the Bolshoi Theater, with 1600 seats, presented Swan Lake, but on Monday Russia’s major theater made a decision to cancel all its shows.
The Vatican may have canceled public services at Easter, but in Saint Petersburg crowds have been lining up all week to kiss the holy relics of Saint John the Baptist at Kazan Cathedral. “The infection cannot be spread in church,” priest Aleksander Pashkov told journalists. The coronavirus pandemic is “an anti-church campaign.”
In the most recent developments, Russian authorities closed the border with Belarus and recommended that all universities switch to distance education online.
All sorts of pseudo experts speak their mind on YouTube. Igor Gundarov, presenting himself as a doctor and a medical authority, says he doubts that the pandemic outbreak is taking place at all. “Evil people with capital, they go crazy,” he proclaims. “As Karl Marx said, they can kill even their own mother—to sell an idea, they manipulate people’s minds.” Gundarov racked up more than 800,000 Russian YouTube viewers in January, and his words inspired dozens of conspiracy theorists to push out their dissident messages about an ostensible COVID-19 hoax even as 100,000 people got infected around the globe.
Medical workers find refuge in cynicism and in some cases wishful thinking. They know they will be on the front lines and highly vulnerable if the pandemic explodes here as it has elsewhere. Right now, for instance, Moscow has banned mass demonstrations of more than 5,000, and they wonder why that would be the case if there is “nothing critical” happening. Three doctors at First City Hospital were laughing at the new rule on Friday night: So, if there is a gathering of 4,999 people, they wondered, can they cough all over each other and it’s okay?
“We sign a non-disclosure agreement, so we cannot give journalists’ information,” one physician told The Daily Beast. Asked about rumors that there are some 6,000 Russians known to have coronavirus symptoms, the doctor did not say that was wrong.
Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, however, vehemently denied such stories. “All these rumors we come across, irresponsible declarations about a huge number of infected patients in Moscow, are not true,” he said Sunday on the television show A Week in Town. “Some politicians obviously want to inflame this topic, as often happens in difficult times. On the contrary, we are interested in immediately telling our citizens about novel coronavirus cases.”
Even so, when news broke last week of a teenage girl diagnosed with coronavirus, Moscow started a volunteer quarantine for school children. Unlike most of the rules dictated in Russia’s life, this time it is not up to the Kremlin but up to the parents to decide if they want to put their children at risk.
All state institutions, including kindergartens, schools, and universities, work without interruption in Nizhny Novgorod, a Russian city on the Volga with a population of more than 1.2 million. A crowd of parents with children filled up the circus on Friday night and fans gathered at Jupiter concert hall to listen to a concert.
The first case of coronavirus reported in this city last week did not inspire the local authorities to take serious action, although one municipal deputy, Yevgeny Lazarev, showed up wearing a thin face mask at the city council meeting on Tuesday.
“More than 63,000 people live below the poverty line and cannot afford simple things, including gauze masks,” Lazarev declared. He called on his fellow deputies to raise the city administration’s awareness of the new virus and its danger. But a majority of his colleagues did not support Lazarev. They thought there were other more important things on the city’s agenda.
After all, the czar-to-be has told them there’s no real problem.