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Moscow’s dilemma: As Delta strain batters Russian capital, politicians & businesses count cost of Covid-19, but on different terms

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It’s a warm and sunny summer evening in Moscow’s upmarket Chistiy Prudiy neighborhood. Usually, the restaurants and bars are packed with punters sipping cocktails and sharing sushi rolls. But these are anything but normal times.

Last week, tough new rules came into force in the Russian capital, effectively banning much of the city’s population from entering hospitality and entertainment venues. Would-be customers must present the unique QR code given to them by the local authority, or else be turned away at the door.

Only those who’ve received two doses of a domestically made vaccine or been officially registered as having previously had coronavirus are eligible for unlimited access. Those who haven’t been immunized or who, like many, believe they’ve had the virus but didn’t undergo a formal test at the time, have to take a PCR test every three days and apply for access through the government’s online system. Those without a code can eat or drink outside on a veranda, but only until July 12, when the rules will apply even there.

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Antibodies required

On the surface, it’s hard to feel sorry for Moscow’s partygoers. Europe’s largest city has been offering access to a range of Covid-19 vaccines for months, doling out doses in pop-up clinics in food halls and shopping centers. By and large, though, the clinics have sat empty, because many Russians have been skeptical about or uninterested in receiving a jab. Many say either that they’ve already had coronavirus, or didn’t see the point in the immunization program, when almost all public health rules have been relaxed since the initial tough lockdown in the first half of last year.

At the same time, cases have risen sharply across the country, with the infectious new Delta variant estimated to be behind 90% of new infections in Moscow alone. The resurgence of the virus, which many thought was effectively under control, took the authorities by surprise. Sergey Sobyanin, the city’s mayor, said the situation was “rapidly deteriorating,” and the sudden rise in cases was “quite unexpected,” given previously estimated levels of immunity in the population. Yet shocking reports of hospitals filling up and elderly patients languishing on gurneys in the hardest-hit parts of the country did little to boost the vaccination drive.

Now, all that’s changing. In the first three days of last week, 2.5 million QR codes were handed out to those who’d already met the requirements, according to officials, accounting for only around 15% of the population of Moscow and the surrounding oblast. But in the days since the rule change, queues have been forming at vaccination points across the capital. The scene in one clinic in the suburbs dramatically changed, almost overnight, with walk-in jabs suspended and appointment slots now fully booked. After weeks of sluggish uptake, supplies of one Russian-made formula, EpiVacCorona, have now run out amid the surging demand.

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Moscow, Russia, 23.06.2021. © RIA
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Another driving factor behind the recent uptick in those wanting to get vaccinated is that radical new measures could see millions lose their paycheck if they’re not inoculated. Last month, Moscow became the first city in the world to require public-facing employees in sectors such as hospitality, transport, and leisure to be immunized. Companies are required to ensure 60% of their workforce have had a vaccine or face a hefty fine. Since the rule change, officials have confirmed that staff can be suspended without pay to help meet the quotas. In a country that frequently tops the list of international surveys of vaccine skepticism, compelling people to roll up their sleeves appears to be the only thing that has worked.

Too little, too late?

The restrictive new rules were not imposed in time to head off a major crisis, however. Speaking on Thursday, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said that “we are living through an emergency,” and backed the public health measures. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman played down their inconvenience, saying he wished “the inability to go to restaurants would be our biggest problem.” If this were the case, he argued, “we’d all be much better off.”

Indeed, the Covid-19 situation in the country has rapidly gone from stable to critical, almost in the blink of an eye. Having plateaued at around 8,000 cases a day since a peak in December, the number of positive tests began to shoot up at the start of June. Official statistics now stand at over 22,000 – although, with many reluctant to give swabs and abide by strict quarantine rules, the true figure is likely far higher.

The result has been catastrophic for the health system. Denis Protsenko, the doctor at the helm of the Kommunarka Hospital, one of Moscow’s top coronavirus facilities, told journalists earlier this month that his wards had a record number of patients on ventilators and would run out of beds in a matter of weeks if nothing were done.

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Russian Emergency Situations Ministry employees carry out disinfection of Kazansky Railway Station amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, in Moscow, Russia. © Sputnik
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On Saturday, the country recorded an all-time high death toll for a fifth day in a row, with 697 fatalities announced. That takes Russia’s total number of deaths since the start of the pandemic to more than 137,000. Overwhelmingly, the vast majority of cases have been in Moscow and the Moscow region, which have also consistently seen the highest number of deaths.

The cost of codes

Given the epidemiological situation, requiring restaurant-goers and those propping up bars to be vaccinated would seem to be an obvious step. As well as limiting the spread of the virus in busy spaces, it has had the secondary effect of motivating those who had been holding out to go and get a jab. Likewise, deliberately or not, it has emptied out otherwise packed venues, which will also lead to a reduction in transmission.

However, it’s not yet clear whether warnings of the seriousness of the situation will be heeded by Muscovites, given how weary many are of the pandemic. On public transport, in supermarkets, and even at the main airport, Sheremetyevo, a large proportion of people choose not to wear masks. Those who do – even police officers and doctors working in clinics – wear them fixed firmly below their nose. In many places, those wearing face coverings correctly are far outnumbered by those not are not.

If there’s contempt for the rule regarding masks, it’s nothing compared to the widespread refusal to obey directives requiring people to wear disposable gloves in public spaces. Despite there being effectively no scientific evidence suggesting surface transmission of a respiratory virus such as Covid-19 – which is spread by droplets through the air – the city authorities have continued to insist on them being worn. However, because they’re widely understood to be ineffective, and their wearing is rarely enforced, the announcements and signs go unnoticed.

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A woman fills in a form before receiving a dose of with Russian Gam-COVID-VAK (trademark "Sputnik V") coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination point at a Globus hypermarket, in Moscow, Russia.
Hammered by infectious new Delta variant, Russia is now finding it has to get deadly serious about Covid-19 vaccine reluctance

One viral clip even showed police officers admitting that nobody would be fined for not covering their hands, leading to a furious denial from transport officials and an insistence that nothing had changed. Why the rule hasn’t been updated in line with what is being required in almost every other country in the world is unclear, but it appears to have become just another one that Muscovites feel can be ignored.

High-cost game

Looking down the barrel of a serious third wave of infections, just as much of Western Europe appears to be bringing its public health situation back under control, Russian officials are understandably concerned about the rising body count.

Businesses are assessing the toll of the pandemic in altogether different terms, however, and it’s not clear how long many will survive if the situation drags on. On Monday, a new government report estimated that the overall cost of Covid-19 to the economy has already been estimated at almost a trillion rubles ($13.6 billion) – and the virus has far from run its course.

How much worse it gets now depends on how long authorities will hold firm on the rules, and the rate of progress in vaccination roll-out and uptake. In the meantime, many people, from an array of sectors, face a very uncertain economic future indeed.

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