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With Europe In Lockdown, Skeptical Russians Are Told: 'No Reason To Panic'

A barman stirs the newly invented Coronavirus cocktail in a bar in Moscow on March 19. "We have the situation under control," President Vladimir Putin has said.

MOSCOW -- The COVID-19 pandemic has spread throughout China, Western Europe, and the United States, threatening to paralyze major economies and subjecting much of the world’s population to state-enforced lockdowns. Leaders are warning of disruptions to economies and lifestyles.

And then there’s Russia.

"We have the situation under control," President Vladimir Putin said on March 17. "We have managed to prevent the mass penetration and spread of the illness in Russia."

“There’s no reason to panic,” Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said on March 19.

Even as Russian officials try to project calm and stability, officials are slowly instituting restrictions in Moscow and other cities: Museums are closing, schools are shuttered. Some supermarkets have reported empty aisles of toilet paper, pasta, and buckwheat – the cheap, nutritious staple popular in Russia.

Fitness centers and some offices are checking the temperatures of new arrivals. Currency exchange spots are seeing increased traffic as people rush to offload their depreciating rubles.

Despite all that, much of Russia’s capital is largely carrying on as normal.

Many bars and restaurants in Moscow remain open. The city, home to millions of people and some of the world’s most clogged roads, is still snarled with traffic for hours each day.

Plans for a citywide lockdown, reported by the Vedomosti newspaper and other Russian outlets, were dismissed as harmful lies by officials and presenters on state TV.

"This is fake. It's a rumor. It's stupidity,” presenter Olga Skabeyeva said on the popular 60 Minutes talk show.

More Cases, More Worry

Within 48 hours of Putin’s statement, on March 19, the official tally of COVID-19 infections in the country almost doubled to 199.

Also, the first death from the infection was reported: a 79-year-old woman in Moscow who passed away with serious complications from the illness. Officials then backtracked, however, saying she had died from a blood clot.

That’s added to doubts among a growing number of Muscovites who are unconvinced by reassurances from the country’s leadership.

"The government is openly lying," said Anastasia Vasilyeva of the independent Doctors’ Alliance trade union, which has been in contact with medical workers throughout the country.

A skateboarder performs a trick -- sans mask -- in Manezh Square in central Moscow on March 19.
A skateboarder performs a trick -- sans mask -- in Manezh Square in central Moscow on March 19.

“They don’t want panic because they don’t want people to understand the dire state that our health care is in,” she said.

With a recent increase in pneumonia cases reported by Russian doctors, Vasilyeva estimated that the country’s rate of COVID-19 infection could be tenfold higher than official figures suggest.

RFE/RL was not able to confirm Vasilyeva’s allegations of a cover-up, which have been echoed by some opposition activists.

Past History

Much of Russians’ distrust stems in part from the country’s history of government secrecy, including the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident and more recent episodes like the radioactive spike caused by errors in testing of a new nuclear missile in the White Sea.

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Updated constantly with the latest figures

Among the other ways Russian officials are projecting calm is the insistence that, despite growing fears, the vote on constitutional changes that could pave the way for Putin to retain power until 2036 will go ahead on April 22.

Also, officials say, will Russia’s grandest celebration of the year: the annual Victory Day military parade on May 9, meant to mark 75 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

Even so, coronavirus fears, plus a steep plunge in oil prices, have stoked fears that the country’s anemic economy could be pushed into full recession.

On March 16, Mishustin proposed a $3.7 billion stimulus package for businesses affected by the pandemic.

WATCH: A massive construction effort is under way in Golokhvastovo, 50 kilometers southwest of Moscow, to build a hospital for the treatment of COVID-19. City officials say the hospital could open its doors within a month.

Drone Footage Shows Rushed Construction Of Russian Hospital For COVID-19 Cases
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Meantime, some businesses are doing their part to educate the public about prevention.

At a Moscow branch of international cosmetics retailer Lush, passersby are being shown how to effectively wash their hands with one of the company’s fragrant soaps.

"Elementary preventive measures like personal hygiene, hand washing, use of antiseptics, not touching the face or frequenting mass gatherings -- all of this helps," Dmitry Azarov, general director of Lush Russia, told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "Since we sell soap, we gave everyone the chance" to wash their hands.

Activists write a slogan that reads "Thanks To Doctors" during a campaign to praise medical staff outside a hospital for patients infected with COVID-19 on the outskirts of Moscow on March 19.
Activists write a slogan that reads "Thanks To Doctors" during a campaign to praise medical staff outside a hospital for patients infected with COVID-19 on the outskirts of Moscow on March 19.

Other companies are making the best of the restrictions and a gradual decline in trade.

With cinemas shut since March 18, some are moving screenings online and working to cash in on a sedentary clientele as they cater to viewers stuck at home amid the pandemic.

Pioner, Moscow’s celebrated art-house cinema and a popular cultural space for the city’s middle class, is known for hosting weeklong retrospectives that pack its halls.

On March 18, however, the theater announced it was shutting down temporarily to do its part in preventing the illness from spreading.

“We want you and your loved ones to be safe,” it told customers in a statement published on its website.

As compensation, it announced an initiative befitting of the extraordinary times: a marathon online screening of films by celebrated American director Quentin Tarantino.

The catchy name for the three-week extravaganza?


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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.