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'Crisis Of Trust': Russia's Pandemic Fatigue Combines With Wariness Of Expert Advice

Despite the coronavirus, places like the Depo Food Mall in Moscow remain packed with customers. Experts point to a widespread distrust in official guidance as one factor for such behavior.

MOSCOW -- On a recent evening at Depo Food Mall, a converted tram depot serving cuisines from around the world, visitors packed the aisles and dined at crowded tables outside the nearly 200 food stalls that fill the vast complex. You had to strain to spot a mask.

Sergei Dudnikov and Igor Shipulin, two friends in their late 20s, sat before a bowl of oysters on ice and two glasses of beer at one of Depo's several bars. On either side, customers leaned over the counter to order drinks.

Dudnikov, who works at a movie theater nearby, was not worried about the coronavirus. At 27, he said he was confident he'd catch a mild form of the illness, if he hadn't already had it.

"If I visit nightspots like this," he said, "then I'm guilty myself."

Across the world, a growing "pandemic fatigue" appears to be exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected over 40 million people. Many governments have brought back restrictions they had lifted months ago, with some arguing that the damage to national economies may outweigh the risks of a laxer approach.

But while many European countries have imposed stringent measures again, with a curfew in place in Paris and a limit on gatherings enforced in the United Kingdom, Russia has in many ways carried on as normal.

Nationwide, authorities recorded more than 16,000 new cases on October 20, the country's highest one-day total since the pandemic began. Once again, Moscow is the epicenter, with a third of cases reported in the Russian capital.

But bars and restaurants have been packed, as have many theaters and movie houses. And experts point to a widespread distrust in official guidance as a factor that underpins what, on any given day or night in Moscow, often looks like a devil-may-care approach.

Moscow's mayor has called the prospect of curfews or severe curbs on movement "impossible."
Moscow's mayor has called the prospect of curfews or severe curbs on movement "impossible."

"Russians have little trust in the government, and that contaminates their trust in medicine, too," sociologist Ella Paneyakh told RFE/RL.

Surveys show that Russians are well aware of the risks associated with the virus, but Paneyakh said many are less likely to rely on advice from health professionals if they suspect these recommendations have an ulterior motive. And if they get sick, many are skeptical they'd get adequate care.

"This lack of confidence in the government produces a level of carelessness," she said. "A crisis of trust."

A 'Middle Way'?

At Depo at the end of March, when a citywide lockdown was announced, staff folded away the tables and opened for takeaway only. In June, once the lockdown was lifted, they installed disinfection tunnels at the entrances, spraying bemused visitors as they arrived. Now, despite the surge in cases, the complex is back to a roaring trade, packed with visitors sampling the cuisines on offer and sipping cocktails.

In many ways, Moscow's packed venues hardly testify to a radical change in attitudes. On March 25, when President Vladimir Putin announced a nine-day paid holiday, hundreds of Muscovites flew south to Sochi and other resort towns on Russia's Black Sea coast to take advantage of the surprise vacation, despite the risks of infection.

In Moscow's forested outskirts, people gathered to grill kebabs and enjoy the first warm weekend in months. "There is no virus," one man told a reporter as he strolled in a park.

In response, the city instituted a lockdown more stringent than those already in place elsewhere. Residents could only leave home for urgent medical care, to dispose of trash, to shop at the nearest grocery or pharmacy, or to walk their pets within 100 meters of home. Hefty fines were levied against quarantine violators, and criminal liability introduced for spreading "fake news" about the pandemic. Skepticism of the official infection and death figures was already rife.

Now, with Russia in the midst of what many are calling a second wave, the country is reopening air traffic with an ever greater number of countries and dismissing rumors of coming restrictions. Theaters and cinemas have welcomed viewers back, and concerts and other public events are going ahead. In Moscow, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has called the prospect of curfews or severe curbs on movement "impossible."

The slated rollout of two coronavirus vaccines that Russia has already approved for early use will signal "a decisive victory over the pandemic," Sobyanin wrote in a post to his website on October 19, predicting that Muscovites will be offered the shot in December or January. Until then, he said, a "middle way" was needed to keep the economy going while helping slow the virus's spread.

As the weather turns colder, more Russians are coming indoors to eat and drink.
As the weather turns colder, more Russians are coming indoors to eat and drink.

But the vaccines are yet to complete the final stages of testing, and doubts abound over whether the authorities will meet the stated target for their release to the broader public -- and indeed over the integrity of the trials themselves. In the meantime, health officials have warned that 90 percent of hospital beds earmarked for coronavirus patients are occupied.

"Hospitals are working under major strain," said Aleksei Erlikh, head of the intensive cardiac-care unit at Moscow's Hospital 29. "It's perhaps even more serious now," he added, citing the fact that many hospitals that were re-profiled to treat only COVID patients in the spring have now returned to focusing on general care.

Locking Down The Economy

There may be political reasons for the authorities' reluctance to clamp down on festivities. In May, a month into Moscow's lockdown, independent pollster Levada Center published a survey showing that Putin's approval rating had dropped to its lowest level in 20 years. The government soon lifted the restrictions, even as cases continued to rise, ahead of a vote on constitutional changes that have handed Putin the option of seeking 12 more years as president after his current term ends in 2024.

RFE/RL's Coronavirus Crisis Archive

Features and analysis, videos, and infographics explore how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the countries in our region.

Abbas Galyamov, a Moscow-based political analyst, says the authorities are desperate to avoid instituting a new lockdown that could sour public moods. But they are caught between a rock and a hard place: afraid to anger voters ahead of next year's parliamentary elections, they also need to stop the infection from spiraling out of control.

"They're afraid the economy will die," Galyamov told RFE/RL. "If they close the country, they'll be forced to help businesses and normal citizens, and they have no money for that. Closing Russia but not providing support -- that's guaranteed to hit the government's approval ratings."

Some new restrictions are appearing. Officials have asked the elderly to remain home, and ordered companies to make 30 percent of their employees work remotely. School vacations have been extended and students moved to online classes. But the merriment continues, and as it gets colder outside, revelers are moving indoors to keep the party going.

At Depo Food Mall, Shipulin, who is 29 and works in shipping, ordered another beer. He had recently returned from a holiday in Turkey, where he was surprised by the enforcement of coronavirus prevention measures like mask-wearing.

There's no guarantee masks will save you from infection, he said, and anyway, young people are far less susceptible.

"People should live as they choose," he said. "If you allow negativity into your life, then you'll find life harder."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.