Just over a week ago, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had the spread of coronavirus “under control.” Now the country is changing tactics, as authorities acknowledge they are gearing up for a major Covid-19 outbreak.
In a nationwide address Wednesday, Putin conceded that it was “objectively impossible to stop [coronavirus] from spilling over” into a country of Russia’s size. He urged Russians to “understand the complexity of the situation” and stay home, declaring next week to be a paid stay-at-home holiday.
It was a classic presidential performance, but Putin stopped short of delivering a bitter pill to the public. While he announced a number of measures to bolster the country’s economy and encouraged citizens to stay home, he left it to other officials to announce more sweeping lockdown measures
On the morning following his speech, the Russian government announced it would seal its borders and cancel all international flights, with the exception of repatriation planes that are expected to bring thousands more Russians home from hard-hit areas.
Other officials are taking the coronavirus effort a step further. For days, the Kremlin had insisted that plans to quarantine residents of the capital were not on the table. But on Thursday, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin effectively moved to hit the pause button for the country’s most vibrant economy, closing all restaurants, cafes, bars, shops and parks in the capital for a week starting Saturday.
Those measures are the strictest Russia has seen so far, as its official coronavirus toll began to increase rapidly. On Thursday, health officials reported the largest one-day increase to date with 182 new cases, bringing the total number to 840. Three people have died of Covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The official narrative around the dangers the virus poses to Russia has also begun a subtle shift. Here, again, Moscow has taken the lead. Top Russian officials originally said preventive measures, such as closing the borders with China and testing people coming back from badly affected areas like Iran, helped delay the outbreak.
But the country did not immediately move to take samples from people coming elsewhere, especially Europe. The majority of early cases in Russia were reported to have been brought from Italy. And on Tuesday, Mayor Sobyanin took the unusual public step of telling Putin in a meeting that previous official figures had likely been underestimated, as many Russians returning from trips abroad did not get tested.
“Half of all people who came from abroad passed through Moscow, and the Muscovites themselves love to travel as well,” Sobyanin said late Wednesday after Putin’s address, referring to well-heeled Russians who often like to spend spring breaks at French ski resorts. “Many people have also visited Courchevel and brought a suitcase of viruses from there.”
The messages, however, remain mixed. Despite the alarming trajectory of cases, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters in a conference call Thursday that there was no need to panic in Russia.
“There is no de facto epidemic [here],” Peskov said. “And de facto our situation is much better than in many countries, that is definitely due to the measures that our government began to take in advance in advance.”
The numbers are likely to continue to grow quickly, now that private testing is available locally and the government has issued a directive to test everyone arriving in Russia.
Meanwhile, the medical professionals are preparing in case things get much worse, with local governments rushing to buy ventilators and expand ICU capacities.
Nikolai Malyshev, the chief infectious diseases specialist with the Moscow branch of the health ministry, warned that an “explosive development like a nuclear reaction” is not out of the question, suggesting that “a huge number of people will be infected.”
“At first, we saw a linear increase of patients,” Malyshev said in an interview aired late Wednesday on the state-run Russia 1 channel. “But now it is exponential.”
It remains to be seen, then, if the Kremlin’s messaging will fall in line with that reality.