Russia was the first country to approve a vaccine to treat the SARS-CoV-2 virus, its Sputnik V jab, which has since been complemented by the development of two other homegrown vaccines, CoviVac and EpiVacCorona. Moscow also directs a national vaccination program which is free and accessible to all Russian citizens who wish to receive a shot. Russia ought to be well on its way to achieving a high-level of immunity in its population, with the government repeatedly claiming ‘victory’ over the deadly coronavirus.
Yet any claims of victory are false. The country’s Covid defence is in a poor position relative to other large nations. As of July 21 Russia has a paltry 14.38% of its population fully vaccinated; 54.3% are fully vaccinated in the UK by contrast. Meanwhile, cases and deaths multiply at alarming rates each day, with 24,098 infections and 711 fatalities recorded on 20 July. Though democracies are also still struggling to defeat the virus, especially the highly transmissible Delta variant, responsibility for Russia’s poor performance in managing the pandemic largely falls at the feet of Vladimir Putin and his authoritarianism.
Rather than properly getting to grips with the pandemic, the severity of which the Kremlin has sought to downplay, the government has instead often prioritised its shady political objectives, carrying out a comprehensive crackdown against civil society following Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment and preparing for the upcoming elections to the State Duma, Russia’s parliament, scheduled to happen this year on 19 September. Meanwhile a combination of a historic lack of trust in the state among Russians, government disinformation about vaccines produced outside Russia, and lack of adherence to proper development standards in the production of Russia’s vaccines has seen the Russian population largely shun vaccination and remain vulnerable to the third wave of Covid. The authorities, when they do try to mitigate the virus’ effects, are increasingly being forced to impose restrictions which are widely unpopular with the public, including the enforcement of mandatory vaccinations and infringements on everyday life such as requiring proof of vaccination status to visit cafés and restaurants, which has led to a thriving black market in fake QR codes and vaccination certificates.
Russia’s continued covid-crisis has three main causes: vaccine hesitancy and mismanagement, disinformation, and an undemocratic political system. Firstly, vaccine hestitancy is widespread among the Russian population. While this is also an issue in many other countries, including democracies, it is a problem which is particularly pronounced in Russia. Data collected by a poll conducted by the Levada Centre, Russia’s largest polling agency, revealed that 54% of respondents were unwilling to be vaccinated, 25% were willing, and 19% reported that they had already received the vaccine; 69.4%, 68.6%, and 48.9% of the UK’s, the US’, and France’s populations respectively have accepted at least one shot of a vaccine.
Second, Russians’ vaccine hesitancy is compounded and made more likely by the behaviour of the government. Not only was Russia’s flagship vaccine, Sputnik V, developed and administered before the completion of routine mass trials to assess its efficacy (it is considered safe by experts now), the government has mismanaged its promotion. President Vladimir Putin’s own vaccination was shrouded in secrecy as he refused to be pictured during it and initially he did not reveal which shot he had received (in the end it transpired to be Sputnik V), forfeiting a PR opportunity taken by many other world leaders to demonstrate to the public the safety of Covid vaccines. There have additionally been reports that Russians were given a different vaccine to the one they were informed they were receiving, while lockdowns have generally been ‘eschewed’ by the government. The Kremlin has also taken a highly nationalist approach to the utilisation of its vaccine. Sputnik V has become a tool in the Russian government’s foreign policy, offering it to African countries to boost Moscow’s standing. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has simultaneously promoted conspiracy theories regarding vaccines developed in other countries in order to lift the profile of its own. The combined effect has been to worsen public confidence in the best line of defence against the increasingly rampant virus.
Yet third, and most fundamental of all, is that the above factors are symptoms of the longer-term illness which undermines the effectiveness of Russia’s governance: the poor health of its democracy and civil society. It is not so much that Russians do not trust vaccine itself. Rather, they do not have faith in the government that provides the vaccine. The Russian state already interferes in the daily lives of citizens to sometimes intolerable degrees, which provokes cynicism towards any government scheme. Despite the vaccine’s necessity, it is seen as just another untrustworthy authoritarian measure that the state is trying to enforce on the population.
Russia’s Covid crisis is a lesson in the ills of autocracy. Having long lost the trust of millions of Russians, the state cannot not rely on voluntary uptake of the vaccine, meaning further unpopular mandatory measures may be necessary, regardless of the fact Putin said he hoped there would be no need for a new lockdown at 2021’s Direct Line session, a public relations event where the Russian President fields questions from ostensibly ‘typical’ Russians over videocall. The regime also plans to use the elections as an opportunity to ‘refresh its legitimacy’ and Covid will take careful management in order to avoid any upsets for the ruling but increasingly unpopular United Russia party. For now, though, the Russian government remains on the back foot.