COVID-19-The view from Russia

COVID-19-The view from Russia
“The pandemic has changed the lives of people around the world, and it is not sure how it will end ”.


Today, it is obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic has become a challenge for the whole world for which it was not ready. It took world leaders and international organisations by surprise and clearly demonstrated the deep divisions in the global political and economic architecture. Sadly, the first reaction that countries showed was not solidarity and coordinated actions but national egoism.

COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of people around the world, and it is not sure how it will end. But, the main conclusion can already be made - humanity was not ready for such a threat. 

In 2015, Bill Gates had predicted during his TED Talk; "When I was a kid, the disaster we worried about most was a nuclear war. Today the greatest risk of global catastrophe doesn't look like this. If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it's most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes. Now, part of the reason for this is that we've invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents. But we've actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We're not ready for the next epidemic".

When the first case of the virus was recorded at the end of the last year in Wuhan, the world carefully and sympathetically watched as events unfolded in China. In the beginning, we were unaware that what seemed like a chimaera, would infect over a million in 180 countries and take more than 50000 lives, and counting. 


When China was in full lockdown, Russia was worried about the evacuation of its citizens from the epicentre of the coronavirus back to our safe cities. We did not fully realise the scale of the disaster and its global dimensions. My cousin, a graduate student at Wuhan University, was presenting short reports for one of Russia's federal channels - NTV, about the situation in Wuhan and the routine life of people in a multi-million city during the period of total quarantine there.

Russia put its countermeasures in place immediately.  According to the New York Times, “Beginning in February, passengers arriving at Moscow by plane from virus hotspots such as China, Iran, and South Korea were met by a phalanx of medical workers in protective gear administering tests. People who came from Europe—before those flights were cancelled—had their temperatures taken and were sent home for a mandatory fourteen-day quarantine.”

A month later, the virus ceased to be a theory, and today it is our reality. We are forced to integrate ourselves into the unusual mode of self-isolation, change our habits, close our borders, limit our movements and seek emerging technological opportunities to be able to work professionally.

Despite the size of Russia and the large border it shares with China, there were relatively few cases in Russia to start with. These low figures led to rumours doubting the reliability of the data being made public by the Federal authorities. To scorch these rumours, the chief sanitary doctor of Russia, Professor Anna Popova issued a statement stating that the Federal Government had the strongest belief that concealing the truth at this moment would lead to a loss of public confidence. The Government had carefully analysed the events in China from the beginning, as also the situation in other countries. On receipt of the first report of the virus during the New Year holidays in Russia, the state machinery imposed border controls to establish a quarantine. 

On 23rd January, the Russian-Chinese land border was sealed once it was clear that human to human transmission of the virus was rapidly occurring.  It was a tough measure. On analysing the number of passengers flying from Wuhan to Russia, it was found that less than one percent flew to Russian destinations in January. A large number flew to Japan, South Korea and other countries that symmetrically gave an even larger level of cases. This is pure epidemiology. Russia managed to close the land border on time and to limit air communication with China. These measures helped to mitigate the situation in Russia.

This also gave Russia time to prepare its own diagnostic test system, trials of which were conducted in February by Russian specialists in China itself.  The tests were found to be very sensitive and accurate. According to Professor Anna Popova, today, Russia is one of the three leading countries that have tested the maximum number of people. Russia has a higher number of ventilators per capita than many Western countries, which suggests that the country may not be in the worst position as the outbreak spreads.

Two additional factors have contributed towards making the spread in Russia more manageable. Russia is vast, of course, but with a relatively less developed transit infrastructure than European countries of similar populations. Russia’s economy is not as active, and now it appears that the more active the economy, the greater the contact among people and faster the spread. There have been 7,497 reported cases of coronavirus infections in Russia in 76 regions with 58 deaths so far.

President Vladimir Putin announced on 2nd April, an extension of the nationwide "non-working week" until 30th April after the country registered a sharp increase in new cases. In a televised address, he said that he would delegate the decision-making power on anti-coronavirus measures to regional authorities, given the regional differences in infection rates. 

He also announced a raft of measures to boost incomes for the low paid, unemployed and pensioners. Besides, Putin has signed legislation imposing severe punishment, including up to five years in prison, for people convicted of spreading false information about the coronavirus. The legislation also imposes punishments for people breaking coronavirus quarantine rules. Russia has earmarked almost $18 billion to battle the coronavirus pandemic. 

On 30th March, Moscow Mayor and the deputy head of Russia's coronavirus task force, Sergey Sobyanin announced a regime of self-isolation, allowing residents to leave their homes only for food or medical purchases, to walk pets, or to go to work if authorised. The social distancing of 1.5 meters is to be observed outside the home. Moscow authorities have developed a QR code system to allow residents to leave their homes as well as a smartphone app to monitor coronavirus patients' movement in self-isolation. All parks, cafés, restaurants and non-essential shops are closed. All school, university classes and office work have moved online. Similar regimes are imposed in the Moscow region, and the Government has asked other regions to follow suit.

Russian Orthodox Church has been highly supportive of the measures. Its head, Patriarch Kirill has called on believers to avoid churches. Speaking after the liturgy at Christ the Saviour Church in Moscow, Kirill said: "I have been preaching for 51 years, calling on people to come to church, overcome the gravitation of their own ill will and external circumstances, I dedicated my entire life to this call and I hope you understand how difficult it is for me to say now: refrain from visiting churches."  Beyond the spread of this disease a great concern, of course, causes economic damage and social consequences.

During this challenging period, people go through different stages: from panic, chaos, disobedience, euphoria and loneliness to full acceptance of this situation. Isolation is a good time to reflect on the self. It is also a perfect time to rethink, reconsider and re-evaluate existing values.

Author: Arlena Khachatryan, Faculty of Political Sciences, Moscow State University