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How mistrust is fuelling a Covid-19 surge in Russia

Vaccine hesitancy and unpopular policies could hurt Vladimir Putin ahead of this year’s legislative elections.  

By Ido Vock

Covid-19 cases in Russia are surging. Deaths hit a record daily high of 697 on 3 July, though the true number is likely to be greater still, with the deputy prime minister Tatiana Golikova admitting last year that the death toll was three times higher than had previously been reported. Officials believe the more transmissible Delta variant is to blame for the current spike in cases.

Russia started rolling out its own vaccine, Sputnik V, in early December, and the jab is available to all adults in the country who want it, free of charge and also, unusually for Russian medical care, of hassle. “It took less than ten minutes,” says one Muscovite who got vaccinated after one of her friends died, she believes, of coronavirus, although the official cause of death was listed as pneumonia.

Yet there has been a dire take-up of Sputnik V. Just 15 per cent of Russians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, far less than most Western countries and some poorer developing countries. Widespread distrust of the authorities and a sense that the pandemic is a thing of the past – virtually all restrictions had been lifted in Russia, before being reimposed in recent weeks – has meant most Russians are ignoring government pleas to get jabbed.

Added to that is the government’s campaign to discredit Western-made vaccines, which may also be driving up distrust of vaccines generally. “Thank God we have not had such tragic situations after vaccination as have been seen with AstraZeneca or Pfizer,” President Vladimir Putin said during a phone-in press conference last week. Reports of underhand practices, such as doctors telling patients they will be receiving Sputnik V when in fact they are injected with EpiVacCorona, another Russian vaccine, are similarly not likely to have helped build confidence.

[See also: How China’s Covid-19 vaccine programme has rapidly accelerated]

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Many local governments have decided to introduce de facto mandatory vaccination, along with offering incentives. The Moscow region has ruled that 60 per cent of workers in customer-facing service sector roles must be fully vaccinated by mid-August. Although workers are in theory free to refuse the jab, their employers are allowed to suspend them without pay if they do so. Several other regions have taken similar steps.

Moscow has also begun enforcing tough new rules, with unvaccinated people now required to provide evidence of a recent negative PCR test, or proof of recovery from coronavirus, if they want to dine indoors. The regulations are an additional incentive to get vaccinated, but they are also fuelling the trade of counterfeit vaccination certificates.

Mandatory vaccination and new restrictions are unpopular, but the policies do seem to be working. “It’s messed up that they’re making me take this shot. No one knows what is in it and I don’t trust Putin,” says Vasily, a 29-year-old from Moscow whose employer has told him he will need to be vaccinated to stay in his job. He will get jabbed, but says he feels “hopeless”.

The mandatory vaccination of service sector workers may not be enough to contain the epidemic. The Moscow Times estimates that it will force around a fifth of Muscovites to get vaccinated. That would only boost coverage rates to 36 per cent or so, assuming that there is no overlap between the roughly 16 per cent of residents who are already vaccinated and the 20 per cent of workers covered by the ruling. It would also fail to improve uptake in the regions that have not instituted mandatory vaccination.

The Covid surge in Russia comes at a politically tricky time for the authorities. Elections to the Duma, Russia’s parliament, are due in September. With many opposition politicians prevented from running, Putin’s administration is focused on ensuring that United Russia, the Kremlin-backed dominant party, secures a constitutional majority, says Ben Noble, a lecturer in Russian politics at UCL. “The Kremlin has become used to controlling the Duma and passing its legislative agenda with little opposition or effort. Losing a constitutional majority would be a very public blow to its narrative of legitimacy and control.” Although unlikely, the chances of such an outcome are raised by implementing unpopular policies.

The authorities face a difficult choice between mandating vaccination and allowing the epidemic to run wild. Russia’s vaccine troubles show the cost of the cynicism and distrust many Russians feel towards their government.

[See also: Can Europe’s summer reopening last?]