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Putin's boasts about COVID-19 safety are unraveling

Henry Meyer, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Russian President Vladimir Putin told business leaders at his flagship economic forum this month that Russia is coping better than many other countries with COVID-19. Events increasingly are contradicting him.

Moscow on Friday reported a record-high 9,056 new COVID-19 cases, days after Mayor Sergei Sobyanin ordered mandatory vaccination for at least 2 million employees as surging infections threaten to overwhelm the capital’s hospitals. That came weeks after Putin ruled out compulsory shots, even as inoculation rates are a fraction of those in Europe and the U.S.

“We are starting to go through this story again but with more severe consequences,” Sobyanin told state television, of the intensifying epidemic. Facing “explosive growth” in infections, officials are organizing new hospital facilities “practically every day and we barely manage,” he said.

Already among the pandemic’s worst-hit countries, Russia’s experiencing a resurgence of the deadly virus aided by the rapid spread of the highly-contagious delta strain first identified in India. That has forced Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia’s two largest cities, to restore some public restrictions just as the success of vaccination programs has prompted many U.S. and European cities to ease them.

Abroad, Russia clinched orders for hundreds of millions of doses of Sputnik V after Putin boasted of developing the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine. But a slow start to production means only a fraction has been delivered, leaving Russia trailing far behind China as a global vaccine provider and undermining its hopes of a soft-power diplomatic dividend.

To be sure, Russia isn’t alone in facing challenges from the delta variant. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday delayed lifting the U.K.’s coronavirus restrictions by four weeks as cases soared, while Indonesia has tightened limits on people’s movements and Singapore scaled back reopening plans.

 

The surge in infections may drag on Russia’s economic recovery, according to Bloomberg Economics analyst Scott Johnson. “The loss of momentum could be more pronounced in the third quarter, depending on how the spike in virus cases weighs on demand,” he said.

Putin announced in March he’d been vaccinated and routinely appeals to Russians to follow his example by taking one of four domestically-developed shots. Only around 11% of Russians have done so, compared to vaccination rates of about 45% in the U.S. and U.K. and 27% in the European Union.

“Yes, we’re lagging behind,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday, while dismissing as “stupidity” suggestions the government’s losing the fight against the epidemic. He blamed the worsening situation on “total nihilism” among Russians in failing to protect themselves and “the insidiousness of the infection itself.”

Within days of the president’s June 4 speech in St. Petersburg, daily reported infections in Russia rose above 10,000 for the first time in three months. The number topped 17,000 on Friday, the most since Feb. 1 and higher than in the U.S. with more than twice the population.

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