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Russia, A Vaccine Pioneer, Fights A Fresh COVID Wave Stoked By Public Distrust

Patients lie in bed at a Moscow Hospital treating people suffering from COVID-19 on June 23.
Patients lie in bed at a Moscow Hospital treating people suffering from COVID-19 on June 23.

MOSCOW -- Of the 20 people employed at Oleg Lysenko's real estate agency in Russia's capital, only Lysenko himself has been vaccinated.

A working Russian coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, has been available since December, but Lysenko says his employees have little faith in anything championed by their government.

"There's serious distrust toward the authorities in Russia," the 60-year-old said as he strolled through a park in central Moscow on a stifling recent afternoon. "They've cheated us too many times."

It is this sentiment, sociologists and health experts say, that has helped drive a surge of new infections in Russia, the country that was first to approve a COVID-19 vaccine but is now scrambling to encourage its use as it battles a resurgence of the disease. Russia has issued contradictory vaccination figures, but most estimates suggest only around 12.5 percent of the population has received at least one dose. In the United States nearly half the population is fully vaccinated; in France that figure is above 25 percent.

In the meantime, daily confirmed cases have more than doubled since the beginning of the month, reaching above 20,000 on June 24 -- the highest number since January -- following many weeks when the pace of new infections was high but manageable.

In St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, videos of patients lying in hospital corridors harked back to harrowing footage from last spring, when Russia's first wave came close to paralyzing the health system.

"We're struggling to deal with the rapid rise in cases," said Salim Khalitov, a doctor in Russia's southern Daghestan region, which was especially hard-hit by the virus last summer. "And people just don't trust the vaccine. They don't believe our government could ever give something away for free without there being a catch."

A health-care worker enters the red zone at a Moscow hospital for COVID patients.
A health-care worker enters the red zone at a Moscow hospital for COVID patients.

Overcoming such deep-rooted suspicion is a tall order. Last week, several regions mandated vaccination for workers in public-facing sectors including retail and education, stopping just short of a costly lockdown. Moscow, the epicenter of the latest wave, announced on June 21 that as of next week, restaurants will only serve customers who show a vaccine certificate or proof of recent infection.

A manager at a restaurant near Moscow's Pushkin Square, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn't authorized to comment to the media, told RFE/RL that the vaccine mandate order had come at a business roundtable hosted by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, and few questions were asked about restaurant owners' ability to weather the drop in footfall.

That has prompted protest from businesses already hit hard by lockdown measures imposed for long periods last year. "When they tell you 'this is how it is' and you have just a few days to transform how you work, that's just wrong," Moscow cafe owner Artyom Temirov told Current Time.

The anger and confusion has given rise to an illicit market in fake vaccination certificates and growing evidence has surfaced that many Russians who are promised a Sputnik V vaccine are in fact injected by one of Russia's two other approved shots, which are yet to be vetted by the international scientific community.

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The worsening situation is particularly jarring for Russians who recoiled at the constant drumbeat of self-congratulatory statements from government officials, who repeatedly touted victory over the virus and spoke with seeming schadenfreude about Europe's lockdown measures even as experts in Moscow warned that Russia's low vaccine uptake would prove a ticking time bomb.

"You deal with your lockdowns first, and then we can shake hands," Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the upper house of parliament and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, told a European delegate on June 4 in footage broadcast on state TV from the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, an event trumpeted as a symbol of Russia's post-pandemic reopening.

Speaking to a packed hockey arena in August 2020, Moscow's Sobyanin said that "together we defeated the problem, we defeated the pandemic."

The authorities' challenge was to convince 70 percent of Russia's 143 million people -- the proportion that Sputnik V's manufacturers say must be inoculated to prevent the virus from spreading -- that the vaccine is effective and safe, a task made harder by its politicized rollout and the broader atmosphere of distrust.

But a government that expends enormous resources on getting out the vote and marking historical anniversaries with fanfare has done little to facilitate that goal, critics say. No Russian celebrities or officials have been vaccinated on camera to persuade a wary public. And the Kremlin announced only in March that Putin had received the first dose of a vaccine, without providing any video footage or saying which shot he had been given.

Ahead of important parliamentary and regional elections in September, the Kremlin's failure to carry out a successful vaccination campaign may hurt the already unpopular ruling party, United Russia, at the ballot box.

"I've been warning since March that cases are rising," said Vasily Vlasov, a professor of epidemiology at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "But the government just continued to lift restrictions."

A worker in a protective suit disinfects a beach in Sochi by the Black Sea on June 22.
A worker in a protective suit disinfects a beach in Sochi by the Black Sea on June 22.

On state television, the primary source of news for most Russians, health experts have rubbished claims about the effectiveness of masks as precautionary measures, and celebrated public figures like filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov peddled the false theory, popular in Russia, that global elites use vaccines to implant microchips in people.

Even before Sputnik V was approved in August 2020, public opinion surveys showed that the majority of Russians were opposed to vaccination. But the Levada Center, Russia's most trusted pollster, has found that opposition to vaccination has actually grown since then, with 62 percent of respondents in an April poll saying they're against any form of inoculation.

"Naturally in the absence of information that can be trusted, people are postponing the decision" to get vaccinated, Volkov told RFE/RL.

In a report published on June 23, the World Health Organization raised concerns about possible cross-contamination and other issues at a factory involved in manufacturing Sputnik V in the Urals city of Ufa, the latest piece of news to set Russians on guard. For Vlasov, it also served as confirmation of why the climate of distrust so doggedly persists.

"Russians traditionally trust neither their leadership nor Russian-made products. They prefer German cars to Russian cars, and the wealthy buy homes in London, wear Swiss wristwatches and English suits, and pack their Moscow apartments with furniture flown in from Italy," he said.

While he continues to trust the main Russian vaccine, the epidemiologist says he can understand why the majority of his compatriots remain skeptical.

"I'm not against our Sputnik. But personally I'm going to try and get access to BioNTech," he said, referring to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine co-produced by Germany and the United States.

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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.

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