The Kremlin claimed Russia had no serious problem with the Wuhan coronavirus just a few weeks ago, but on Saturday it admitted a “huge influx” of patients is flooding into Moscow hospitals and the situation in Russia’s big cities is “quite tense because the number of sick people is growing.”
It was a stunning turnaround for the government of President Vladimir Putin, whose political support is collapsing as the pandemic threatens to cancel major events he hoped would turn his poll numbers around.
“We are seeing hospitals in Moscow working extremely intensely, in heroic, emergency mode,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Moscow went into coronavirus lockdown about two weeks ago. The Russian Orthodox Church, which will hold its Easter celebration on April 19 this year, has instructed churches to avoid large gatherings and restrict Easter services. Russian Orthodox leaders have been criticized for responding slowly to the pandemic and resisting a ban on practices such as kissing icons and sacred relics after prayers.
On Monday, Russian officials reported the highest daily increase of coronavirus infections and fatalities to date, bringing the total to 18,328 cases and 148 deaths. As with other totalitarian regimes like China and Iran, outside observers suspect the Russian government is concealing the true extent of the epidemic by undercounting both infections and deaths.
The New York Times on Monday argued Russians are paying a heavy price for their government’s obsession with spreading disinformation and anti-Western propaganda instead of solid medical information:
As the pandemic has swept the globe, it has been accompanied by a dangerous surge of false information — an “infodemic,” according to the World Health Organization. Analysts say that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has played a principal role in the spread of false information as part of his wider effort to discredit the West and destroy his enemies from within.
The House, the Senate and the nation’s intelligence agencies have typically focused on election meddling in their examinations of Mr. Putin’s long campaign. But the repercussions are wider. An investigation by The New York Times — involving scores of interviews as well as a review of scholarly papers, news reports, and Russian documents, tweets and TV shows — found that Mr. Putin has spread misinformation on issues of personal health for more than a decade.
His agents have repeatedly planted and spread the idea that viral epidemics — including flu outbreaks, Ebola and now the coronavirus — were sown by American scientists. The disinformers have also sought to undermine faith in the safety of vaccines, a triumph of public health that Mr. Putin himself promotes at home.
The Times noted that Russian citizens tend to consume a great deal of the disinformation Putin and his henchmen intended for foreign audiences, so they have been conditioned to distrust foreign medical advisories, while their own government is very slow to admit serious problems like the coronavirus epidemic are affecting Russia.
The Associated Press (AP) on Monday judged the pandemic a disaster for Putin’s agenda, as it shuts down Russian Orthodox celebrations of Easter, delays important parliamentary actions, and threatens to cancel Victory Day parades on May 9, the day Russia usually holds enormous patriotic and military spectacles to commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War 2.
“The holiday has become the most important on Russia’s calendar, and this year is the 75th anniversary, with world leaders invited to a celebration highlighting the country’s exceptional role in history. Every year, thousands gather in Moscow, including many elderly veterans proudly wearing their medals,” the AP noted.
Putin would suffer tremendous political embarrassment if the pandemic he once downplayed forces him to cancel Victory Day, even as the oil war with Saudi Arabia crushes Russia’s currency and over ten percent of Russians stand to lose their jobs.
Putin, like Chinese dictator Xi Jinping, took a major hit to his authoritarian strongman persona by disappearing during the pandemic and delegating emergency decisions to regional officials. The AP noted that Putin’s address to the nation last week was widely mocked as “out of touch” and state media abruptly stopped releasing excerpts from his marathon Victory Day interview, which was supposed to shore up his cratering poll numbers by touting his accomplishments and laying out an upbeat agenda for the future.