As cases, deaths soar in Russia, why are vaccination rates low?

Russia produced the world’s first registered COVID-19 vaccine, but hesitancy persists among swathes of the population.

Health workers arrive at a house to administer a vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to local residents in the village of Loznoye in Volgograd region, Russia, June 27, 2021 [Kirill Braga/Reuters]
Health workers arrive at a house to administer a vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to local residents in the village of Loznoye in Volgograd region, Russia, June 27, 2021 [Kirill Braga/Reuters]

Anastasiya Kulchina refuses to get vaccinated against COVID.

The 72-year-old, an ex-nurse, says that the Russia-made Sputnik V vaccine was developed “suspiciously quickly”, although she admits that her knowledge of virology is not “professional”.

“The vaccine is being perfected on us. I don’t want to be a guinea pig,” Kulchina, a grandmother, told Al Jazeera.

Instead, she tries to stay away from people.

She lives in seclusion in her summer house outside Moscow planting zucchini, raspberries and flowers, binge-watching TV series or spending hours on the phone with her friends – most of whom are also hesitant about the vaccine.

A staggering 62 percent of Russians do not want to get vaccinated, and 56 percent are not afraid of getting the virus, according to a survey by the Levada Center pollster conducted in April.

This is especially surprising given that Sputnik V was the world’s first registered COVID-19 vaccine, and has been supplied to nations from Mongolia to Brazil.

“It is just as reliable as Kalashnikov assault rifles,” Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted in May.

Two more vaccines were developed in Russia by research facilities that once helped pioneer enormous vaccination campaigns in the USSR and dozens of nations.

But Russia remains dramatically under-vaccinated.

Only 13 percent of Russians have received both jabs – compared with more than half of Americans and 87 percent of Icelanders.

Meanwhile, the more infectious Delta variant sets new records in the nation of 143 million.

On Monday, 21,650 new cases were confirmed, the highest number since January, more than a third of them in Moscow. At least 611 died, including a record 124 in Moscow.

Since the pandemic began, Russia has recorded almost 5.5 million infections and some 133,000 deaths.

Why are so many concerned about the vaccine backed by Putin?

“They are not against vaccination, they’re against bureaucratic campaigns. And they protest against these campaigns not openly, but by sabotaging them,” Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based expert with the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

Some experts blame the collective mentality. For centuries, Russians distrusted their authoritarian rulers, and passive resistance to coercion often remained the only form of protest.

“What’s happening is not about anti-vaxxers. This is a diagnosis of the current model of ruling the country and the relationship between the government and the public,” medical expert Pyotr Talantov wrote in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

According to Denis Volkov, Levada’s director, “distrust” towards the president and his government in most cases means unwillingness to get vaccinated.

However, an outspoken vaccine advocate disagrees with this simple explanation.

“Perhaps, it is one of the factors, but it’s hardly a priority,” Elena Savinova, who runs the popular @VaccinesNoNonsense blog, told Al Jazeera.

She lives in Finland and says that Russians there – and in nearby Estonia – have some of the lowest vaccination rates.

After years of studying online groups of Russian vaccine-deniers of all stripes, she concluded that they believe that “globalists – like octopus’s tentacles – have reached Russia, and that they should be kicked out of the government.”

People against the vaccine are “way more conservative than those who get vaccinated”, she said.

New restrictions

Authorities have tried both the carrot and the stick to curb the epidemic.

In some regions, authorities attract people to vaccination centres with petty cash, gift certificates, bonus miles, lotteries and free tickets to movie theatres or museums.

And on Monday, a new wave of restrictions took effect in the epidemic’s biggest hotbed – Moscow.

Three-fifths of civil workers will get compulsory vaccinations, while restaurants will only let in customers with vaccination certificates, a negative test or a document proving they had COVID-19 in the past six months.

Violators will be fined $70.

“There’s going to be just a handful of visitors, and I will go bust,” Talgat Durmonov, who owns a basement café serving Central Asian cuisine near one of Moscow’s railway stations, told Al Jazeera.

All service-sector workers at shops, post offices, banks and educational institutions will have to get both vaccine shots by August 15 – or lose their jobs.

Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin urged Muscovites to support this “extremely difficult, but necessary and responsible decision”.

But as in many other countries, physical distancing and lockdown measures have been raised and then ended, only to return, as the virus ebbs and flows.

In November, Sobyanin proclaimed that Moscow is “close to victory” over COVID, and restaurants, theatres and gyms opened their doors.

These doors were closed shut in the spring of 2020, when Muscovites were allowed to leave their homes only with digital permits.

The restrictions were eased, however, when Russians voted in the July 1 referendum that “nullified” Putin’s previous presidential terms allowing him to stay in power until 2036.

Another inconsistence is geographic.

While Moscow is bracing for new restrictions, Russia’s second-largest city just held what epidemiologists call a “super-spreader event”.

On June 25, tens of thousands of people of all ages – most without masks – joined high-school students for an annual graduation festival in St. Petersburg.

“The city will stand! Russia will be strong!” mayor Alexander Beglov told a crowd that jampacked the city’s Palace Square, neglecting social distancing.

The only people fined for not wearing masks were two protesters who unfurled anti-Putin banners, Fontanka.ru reported.

Two days later, the city of four million registered a record 1,298 infections.

Meanwhile, Russia’s black market has responded to new restrictions with dozens of offers of fake vaccination certificates that can be obtained via anonymous Telegram channels.

Prices vary between $150 and $300, and vendors promise that a buyer’s name will appear in an online government database within days.

“You’ll get the certificate tomorrow, and your name will be in the database by Friday,” one of the sellers who operates the Spravka_Ree Telegram channel told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera

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