Russia’s death toll rises as vaccine tourism and fake Covid passes soar

Doctors face fierce resistance from people who reject calls to get vaccinated or obey growing restrictions

A health worker prepares to administer a dose of the Sputnik V vaccine in Moscow, Russia. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

A health worker prepares to administer a dose of the Sputnik V vaccine in Moscow, Russia. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

 

It is now clear that Russia’s Covid-19 death toll is among the highest in the world, yet with a potentially devastating winter just starting to bite, top officials, doctors and even provincial bus conductors still face fierce resistance from people who reject their calls to get vaccinated and obey growing restrictions.

Tatarstan this week became the first Russian region to demand proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19 on public transport, leading to thousands of people being ejected from buses in the capital, Kazan, and to several conductors being attacked by locals who did not have the required digital code on their phones.

Regions across Russia are increasingly making these QR codes mandatory for entry to public places, reluctantly dropping their previously light-touch approach to restrictions as hospitals, ambulance services and oxygen supplies come under huge strain.

Russia has lost 753,000 more people during the pandemic than it would have done under normal circumstances

“Unfortunately, across the country as a whole we are not seeing a major drop in the level of fatalities. As before, more than 1,200 of our citizens are passing away [from Covid-19] each day. It’s a serious, dramatic statistic,” Russian deputy premier Tatiana Golikova told president Vladimir Putin this week.

“When this wave of infections started, we began with 20,000 [new cases] each day. Now we have almost 35,000 a day. We need to significantly reduce the infection rate and reach a level of collective immunity, so as to get more safely through the next rise [in infections]. And it will come.”

The Russian government’s taskforce for Covid-19 says the country has registered 9.5 million cases of Covid-19 and 270,292 deaths from the virus. The nation’s official statistics agency classifies cases differently, and says that by the end of September the virus had claimed about 462,000 lives.

Kazan-bus-church: A bus in Kazan, on the Volga river in Russia, passes by the city’s Church of Saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin
Kazan-bus-church: A bus in Kazan, on the Volga river in Russia, passes by the city’s Church of Saint Paraskeva Pyatnitsa. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin

Official excess death data, however, show Russia has lost 753,000 more people during the pandemic than it would have done under normal circumstances, putting it behind only the US in total excess deaths for the period, and third in per capita terms behind Peru and Bulgaria, according to analysis by the Financial Times.

The virus has inevitably ravaged Russia’s elderly, and the Vedomosti newspaper reported this week that the nation had lost a quarter of its revered second World War veterans during the pandemic – more than 312,000 people, suggesting they have died at a rate 1.5 times quicker than before Covid-19 emerged.

Only about 38 per cent of Russians are fully inoculated

Independent statistician Alexei Raksha calculates that Russia’s natural population – derived from registered deaths and births but excluding the effect of migration – shrank by 997,000 from October 2020 to September 2021, in the country’s biggest peacetime decline on record.

A major factor has been the reluctance of Russians to be inoculated, despite Putin declaring in August 2020 that the country had beaten the world to register the first coronavirus vaccine, when Sputnik V was given state approval before clinical trials had been completed.

Only about 38 per cent of Russians are fully inoculated, however. Now, in tandem with draft legislation to introduce de facto vaccine passports, the Kremlin and its allies are stepping up their campaign against influential anti-vaxxers.

“We are all a bit busy now, you can probably guess with what,” 12 doctors at major hospitals wrote in an open letter this week to a dozen politicians and celebrities who have publicly questioned the safety or efficacy of vaccines.

“But considering how many people read, listen and pay attention to you, we will find time to take you around the ‘red zones’, intensive-care wards and pathology departments of our hospitals. Maybe after that you will change your position and fewer people will die.”

Denis Protsenko, head doctor at Moscow’s main coronavirus hospital, said on social media that “a very real war is going on, every day we lose more than a thousand people in it, who did not prepare their bodies to encounter a deadly virus.

Richer Russians are now funding a booming trade in vaccine tourism to countries where they can get western-made shots that Moscow has not approved

“Yes, I am writing again about coronavirus vaccinations and I will not get tired of doing so, because I understand this is the only salvation.”

The Kremlin said it viewed the doctors’ open letter “very positively” but insisted that vaccine scepticism in Russia “is no different to other countries”.

A medic wearing a special suit to protect against coronavirus fills documents as a body of a Covid-19 victim lies on a stretcher at an ICU of a hospital in Volgograd, Russia. Photograph: Alexandr Kulikov/AP Photo
A medic wearing a special suit to protect against coronavirus fills documents as a body of a Covid-19 victim lies on a stretcher at an ICU of a hospital in Volgograd, Russia. Photograph: Alexandr Kulikov/AP Photo

“There remains a limited circle of people who are pessimistic about vaccines,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “Just look at what’s happening in Germany, France, Austria, the Netherlands. It’s all very similar, the trend is the same.”

Yet all those countries have much higher vaccination rates than Russia, where private mistrust of officials and state narratives is pervasive but finds almost no expression in state media or on the streets, where protest is effectively banned.

While exhorting Russians to get vaccinated, Putin (69) waited until March to get his first shot - seven months after Sputnik V was cleared - and declined to have the jab on camera.

He unexpectedly announced this week that he had been given a booster jab and - the very next day - an experimental vaccine powder via a nasal spray, apparently throwing his previous caution to the wind in a way some Russians find implausible.

Their scepticism will hardly have been assuaged by Peskov later clarifying that Putin was actually taking part in a test of a liquid, not powder, nasal vaccine.

“With this powder and liquid it’s really funny. I thought it was a joke, but no,” said Kira Yarmysh, a spokeswoman for jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

A medic wearing a special suit to protect against coronavirus fills documents as a body of a Covid-19 victim lies on a stretcher at an ICU of a hospital in Volgograd, Russia. Photograph: Alexandr Kulikov/AP Photo
A medic wearing a special suit to protect against coronavirus fills documents as a body of a Covid-19 victim lies on a stretcher at an ICU of a hospital in Volgograd, Russia. Photograph: Alexandr Kulikov/AP Photo

“Now trust in vaccines will rise to 146 per cent, great job!” tweeted Yarmysh, who fled Russia in August to escape a sweeping crackdown on Putin’s critics.

With demonstrations, mass media and elections tightly controlled, Russian attitudes to the authorities are revealed more by private behaviour than public criticism.

Vaccine uptake has increased somewhat as regions expand the use of mandatory QR codes, but so has demand for fake inoculation certificates that have been widely advertised online for months.

The Kommersant newspaper reported this month that the personal data of 500,000 buyers of black-market passes had been leaked online, and medics in several regions have been detained for selling fake certificates. Some are even  accused of pouring away vaccines that they claimed in official records to have administered.

“There is a circle of people who, for bribes (and) in violation of the law, buy fake vaccination certificates, which is a crime,” Peskov said. “These people in particular are also the targets of the (letter) from our heroic doctors, who for two years already have been fighting Covid, saving our lives.”

Richer Russians are now funding a booming trade in vaccine tourism, organising trips independently or through travel agents to countries where they can get western-made shots that Moscow has not approved.

“The demand over the last month and a half, that is, to the end of October, increased by ... one and a half to two times. And it is continuing to grow now,” said Maya Lomidze, acting director of the Russian tour operators’ association.

She named Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Greece and Germany as the main destinations for Russians who can afford to go abroad for vaccines that would allow them to travel to EU countries, the US and elsewhere, at a time when Russian vaccines do not have World Health Organisation or EU clearance.

“This is unlikely to be a flow of many millions of people,” Lomidze added. “We’ll probably get to several tens of thousands of people by the end of the year.”

Such options are beyond the reach of most Russians, including Farida, a student travelling by trolleybus through her native Kazan this week.

“This journey was fine, I’m vaccinated and have a QR code on my phone,” she said after disembarking in the snowy city centre, where the temperature was minus 10.

“But on Monday, when the new checks began, I was on a bus that was delayed for 20 minutes while a guy argued with the conductor. In the end it turned out he had a code, but didn’t like being ordered to show it,” she recalled.

“What can you do? We’re a stubborn lot.”

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