COVID-19: Delta variant and vaccine hesitancy mean Russia's third wave is in full swing

·5-min read

Russia's third COVID wave is in full swing.

It is driven by the Delta variant and is surging through a largely unvaccinated population. Cases are rising by around 23,000 each day with the death rate consistently hitting fresh pandemic peaks.

On Saturday, Russia's coronavirus operative response headquarters reported 24,439 new cases of the virus - the highest number since 16 January. It also hit a record high of 697 related daily deaths in the last 24 hours.

In Moscow alone, the death rate in a day is the same as for the whole of the UK in a week. In St Petersburg, where football fans thronged on Friday to watch Switzerland play Spain, fatalities are on a par with Moscow.

Finnish authorities just attributed 40% of a recent spike in cases to fans returning from watching Euro 2020 in St Petersburg. Vaccine hesitancy is a major problem.

Only 16% of Russians have had their first jab. In the UK, it's 66%. Moscow authorities are offering prizes to get people to vaccination points.

Long adamant that no one would be forced to take the vaccine, authorities in some Russian regions are now asking certain public sector workers to take the jab.

It's still voluntary, according to the Kremlin spokesman, because if you don't want to do it you can look for another job.

Anti-vax sentiment in Russia pre-dates the COVID crisis but the Kremlin has not helped itself with its drive to push its Sputnik V vaccine abroad.

Guatemala has just complained about supply shortages; the Kremlin says vaccinating its own people is the priority.

That sentiment is overdue.

"Sputnik was met with great suspicion from day one because it was advertised as the first in the world and people understood that the political dimension was more important than its use for public health," says Aleksey Levinson of the independent Levada polling centre.

"Plus they thought - why are we helping others and not ourselves?"

Levada's latest COVID-related polls from April found that 62% of Russians did not want to take the vaccine while 56% weren't scared of contracting the virus.

That may have changed in the last couple of months as the Delta variant's impact has become more apparent. Russia's state newscasts are now filled with the COVID emergency in a bid to get people to recognise the dangers.

But Russians are more prepared to trust the grapevine than they are the nightly news. It is a classic crying wolf scenario. Why should the people believe what the government says when they are so used to being lied to?

Nina Safronova has had COVID three times. In February, her mother died with the virus. She works at a medical equipment company and feels that the firm cuts corners in terms of protecting staff.

The last time she was hospitalised and lost 75% of her lung capacity. She struggles to breathe when we speak.

"They put me in intensive care and my one thought for the first two days was that I had a kid I needed to live for, I was like a rhino with its horn against the wall with just one thought - live, live, live."

Neither Ms Safronova nor her mother took the vaccine. She had hoped she would develop antibodies.

Now she feels differently. "You have to get a vaccine. It's essential. If you get sick, you won't get it so badly, without such consequences, without such endless stress," she said.

Moscow authorities say full lockdown would be the last resort. Last week they introduced the first major restrictions in a year.

Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman, said the possibility of another lockdown was "not being discussed".

He said on Friday: "The president has commented on the lockdown. No one wants any lockdowns. The lockdown is not being discussed. Everyone should be vaccinated as soon as possible precisely to avoid such discussions."

Now you need a QR code to sit inside the city's bars and restaurants proving you've had the vaccine, the virus in the last six months or a recent PCR.

Foreigners are having problems registering with the system because of bureaucratic hiccups around social security and payroll numbers. Secret service agents reportedly are too.

The restrictions are half-hearted. Until mid-July, the terraces are still open to those without the code.

The absence of the kinds of restrictions seen across Europe since an initial two-month lockdown last April has exacerbated the feeling that a jab isn't necessary.

Russia's black market in fake vaccination certificates and fake QR codes is also thriving, despite government threats to crack down. If Russians feel they can get around a rule, they will.

"In the UK I know it's felt like a collective effort to be locked down for the best part of a year or more so the vaccine - and everyone doing it - is like the out to get back to normal life," says Martin Houldsworth, a British ex-pat. "Whereas here it's felt like normal life for a long time."

It may not feel normal for much longer. As with most vaccines, the efficacy of Sputnik V, which the majority of vaccinated Russians have taken, is reduced against the Delta variant.

The Kremlin has admitted it won't hit its goal of fully inoculating 60% of the population by September.

Booster jabs have started too but a major catch-up is required for the vaccine to have a chance of outpacing the variant.

The irony is that for an authoritarian state, playing at liberal democracy has not paid off. "Russians aren't that attentive to the messages that come from the top if it is a genre of slogans and appeals and declarations", says Levada's Aleksey Levinson.

"For them that's not something to pay attention to, they don't think they have to obey."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting