Russia's battle against COVID 19

In the 7th Webinar held on April 28th, the focus was on Russian efforts towards battling the pandemic and to seek strategies for a post COVID scenario.

Mr Nikita Konopaltsev:

Mr Nikita Konopaltsev who is the Scientific Director at Russian Internet of Things Research and Consulting Centre. Nikita Konopaltsev graduated from the Philosophy Faculty of the Moscow State Lomonosov University. Having worked for the World Public Forum 'Dialogue of Civilisations' for over a decade, his research interests concern the philosophy of the dialogue of civilisations, global inclusive development policies and institutions, and contemporary political theory and practice.

Dr Maksim Vilisov:

Dr Maksim Vilisov, a PhD in Political Science, who is the Associate Professor, Deputy Head of the State Governance Department, Faculty of Political Science, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Russia and Director General, Centre for Crisis Society Studies (CENTERO), Moscow, a non-government, non-profit think-tank.  His research areas include Public policy and public administration in Russia and post-soviet countries, post-soviet integration (Commonwealth of Independent States, Customs Union, Eurasian Economic Union), public-private partnership, and business-government relations.

The Synergia Foundation has been closely monitoring the course of COVID-19 since the beginning. Through a series of webinars, connecting experts from around the world, the Foundation has been trying to understand the disease better and seek strategies for a post COVID scenario. In our 7th Webinar held on April 28th, the focus was on Russian efforts towards battling the pandemic. 

As on May 12th 2020, a new surge in coronavirus cases took Russia's infection rate to 2,32,243 making it the second-largest in the world after the U.S. On a single day on May 12th, the daily infection count was almost 11,000 new cases. The official stance is that the spike is due to a huge testing campaign with some 5.8 million tests conducted so far. However, the silver lining has been that Russia has been successful in keeping the mortality rate at about 2000 till May 12th, in comparison to a much higher tally in other European countries. 

The pandemic and a second surge in Russia 

As regards the low mortality rate -- which despite a much larger infection rate remains below India's -- (75,000 infected with 2436 dead),  Dr Maksim Vilisov opined that it was a testament to the prompt imposition of the self-isolation regime as also the low density of the population, and the cooperation between civil society and the government.

While still in the grip of the pandemic, Russia is preparing for opening up and looking at the measures that have to be taken. On the prospect of a second wave, Dr Maksim Vilisov said, "The most important thing is to maintain cooperation between people and the government. Since the main source of the second wave has been found to be foreigners, and if borders are going to remain closed, Russia should be okay if it manages to handle its domestic cases and shouldn't see too bad a second surge. Pulling out the restrictions will be a step-by-step process." 

As regards the future, he echoed the grim prospects shared by many other experts. "No recovery until the end of year" said Dr Maksim Vilosom.

Mr Nikita Konopaltsev summed up the measures taken by Russia in curtailing the spread. Close to USD 1 billion has been used to boost the medical sector to deal with COVID in terms of setting up hospitals, to source medication, PPE, etc. There has also been a rise in people volunteering to help each other, especially reaching out to the elderly.

Self-isolation has been enforced in all areas. In many cities, including Moscow, people were monitored. People get permission passes online to leave their homes and are given working and medical permits. Work was halted from March 30th to April 30th without any salary reduction. All businesses were closed except food stores and essential services. All MSMEs have received benefits in the form of moratoriums in payments, tax holidays, and deferred rent payments. 

The oil prices and Russia's economy 

The lockdown situation is tough, but it has been tougher with the falling oil prices, especially the falling of the price to negatives. The Russian government was prepared for the shock, and the national welfare fund was used to cope, which can last Russia for roughly 2-5 years.

According to Dr. Vilisov, global lockdown has resulted in a huge decline in production all over the world, and the overall decline of energy demand. The current state of the global markets doesn't give Russia much hope. He says, "It is going to be a big challenge for Russia, as it also has to reduce its production from 11mil to 8.5 mill barrels per day. That gap that will be created in the GDP by the lack of production needs to be covered. Some say that it's the end of the economic policy that has been working for the last two decades. The current Russian budget was formed keeping the price of oil at $43 dollars per barrel. But after the plunge in prices, we might not recover the money lost even until the end of the year."

The side effect of this fall in GDP would also affect the chance for economic diversification. Dr Vilisov also stated that Russia could very well see a recession and that the depth of the recession would depend on when the lockdown lifts and when oil prices stabilise. He maintained that the gap created in the GDP by the lack of production needs to be covered through some other means. There is a complex decision to make in terms of what is important - to fight disease or to stop a recession.

Technological developments and data privacy

Mr Nikita Konopaltsev elaborated on his work at the Russian Internet of Things Research and Consulting Centre. The current focus is on disposable health hygiene. The prototype is "something that can be put on people's phones that could track the disease. There are ethical issues on gathering people's data, but the hope is that all the information that is transmitted is anonymous and will be destroyed after disease," he says. 

Russia and public diplomacy 

R Srinivasan, Editor at The Hindu, raised a question with the panel on the collapsing oil prices and its impact on Russia. "Would it cause Russia to look to India as a trading partner more seriously?" Nikita Konopaltsev, an ardent friend of India, responded, "The cultural and historical ties between India and Russia are strong.  Once the economy opens up and is replenished, we could pay strong attention to our bilateral trade and scientific communication, which would benefit both sides and would help overcome a post-COVID world." 

The Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, Amb. P.S. Raghavan also had a query regarding whether the pandemic resulted in a thaw in Russia's relations with the USA and Europe since Russia has sent medical assistance to the U.S. and Italy.  

Both the Russian panellists were unanimous in admitting that it was the correct spontaneous action to be taken by any well-meaning and responsible power, especially when the suffering is universal. They reiterated that the fundamental Russian approach to global issues has been to collaborate and follow international law. Referring to the tough economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S. and its western allies, the issue was raised at the U.N. by many countries, along with the painful sanctions against Iran and some other countries. These sanctions would be detrimental to the fight with COVID-19. "There are politics involved, but these have always been there," said Mr Nikita. Asking for greater understanding and a collaborative approach, his view was that "The pandemic broke all borders and is a threat to all of humanity." 

Assessment

  • Russia's strategy against the pandemic right from day one has been proactive, perhaps reflecting the type of leadership provided by Mr Putin at the highest level. Though saddled with an ageing and archaic public health system from the Soviet days, the network of health care facilities is widespread, providing one of the largest per capita bed availability. While it may not be comparable to the state of art health care system of western Europe, it has been useful in creating requisite bed capacity to treat the flood of patients, thus keeping the death rate low despite the allegations of critics that the mortality numbers may be underquoted. However, in the last five years, the health system has received very little funding which will need to be corrected now.
  • The greater worry for Russia is its weakening economy. A recession puts Russia in a serious situation, having had a meagre growth of 1.3 percent in 2019, collapsing oil prices and real incomes stagnating for the last few years. An economically weakened Russia would find it difficult to play its part in global geopolitics, especially in the Middle East, where over the last few years it had regained its primacy.
  • Perhaps, post-COVID 19 worlds may provide a window of 'rapprochement' between the West and Russia, allowing for a relaxation of the economic sanctions stifling Russia's growth.

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