‘I don’t have a choice’: Russians scramble to get Covid vaccine amid new restrictions
With infections at highest since January, country is introducing curbs for non-vaccinated
Russia has finally admitted it has a vaccination problem – but with an “explosion” of new cases driving the country’s daily toll to its highest since January, the question is whether that public realisation has come too late.
Just 11% of Russia’s 146 million population is fully vaccinated – whether due to vaccine skepticism, doubts about Sputnik or other Russian-made vaccines, or “nihilism”, as a Kremlin spokesperson has suggested.
But with more than 20,000 new cases reported across Russia in the last two days, as well as tough new restrictions on those who have not received their jabs, lines at public vaccination centres are now stretching out the door.
At an emergency vaccination site in Moscow’s Metropolis mall, dozens of Russians were lined up on a recent morning for a shot of Sputnik.
“It’s three hours now, soon it will be four,” an attendant said as he ran among a mostly young crowd filling out forms with their medical data. I asked if it was always like this. “It’s just this week – just since Monday,” he replied.
What has changed are a series of strict new measures by Moscow and other cities that will target those who refuse to vaccinate. From Monday, Moscow cafes and restaurants will require vaccine QR codes for patrons to be seated. Hospitals will turn away patients seeking non-emergency surgeries. Public spaces, including outdoor playgrounds, have been closed. Government and service industries have been set a goal of vaccinating 60% of their employees.
“No, I don’t completely trust [the vaccine], but at this point I don’t believe that I have a choice,” said Anastasia Lavrentyeva, who works in human resources and also has a freelance event and training business for corporate clients. “It’s the vaccine or soon I won’t be able to work at all.” She hopes the harsh restrictions will be temporary, and that outdoor events will be allowed by the end of summer.
The Kremlin has denied that Russians are being forced to get their jabs. The new restrictions in Moscow were announced as Putin flew to meet the US president, Joe Biden, last week; and the Russian president has said that getting the vaccine remains a personal choice. Putin, who is regularly filmed shirtless, refused to release photographs of him being vaccinated, despite the likelihood it would have boosted trust in the jabs.
But facing an onslaught of new cases driven by the highly contagious Delta variant, even the Kremlin has had to change its tone to provide back up for the regional leaders required to carry out the unpopular measures. Leaked videos of local hospitals overrun with coronavirus patients, or long ambulance queues, have returned after a months-long lull in which Russia claimed to have beaten back the disease.
“Overall, vaccination is indeed still voluntary,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson. But he added: “If a Muscovite works in the service industry, they should get the vaccine. If they have decided not to get the vaccine, they should simply stop working in the service industry.”
The new requirements have reportedly boosted prices on Russia’s hidden market for vaccine certificates, where dealers on messaging apps claim they can provide not only doctored reports but can insert names directly into government registers of vaccinated patients. Similar services existed in the past to provide fake university diplomas. The practice has now been adapted to the age of the pandemic.
Doctors see the coming weeks as critical in showing Russians that the vaccine drive is not being bungled and is being delivered efficiently and professionally.
“This is a big chance,” said a doctor at Moscow’s 62nd hospital, which has seen a boost in Russians seeking vaccinations this week. “We know it’s either [patients coming to] us or people finding a way around the restrictions, so our priority is to vaccinate as many people as are willing.”
Asked why Russians had resisted getting Sputnik or the other Russian vaccines, CoviVac or EpiVacCorona, he smiled: “Sometimes we need a bit of a push.” Most of those surveyed by the Guardian at vaccination sites said they had been putting off getting vaccinated because they believed the threat from the disease in Moscow had receded.
A May survey by the independent Levada Centre reported that 62% of Russians said they were not ready to be vaccinated with Sputnik V, which was rolled out in December of last year and billed as “the first registered vaccine against Covid-19”.
Attention has been drawn to Russian anti-vax groups that have openly opposed all jabs, suggesting that the coronavirus epidemic is invented or spreading conspiracy theories that the vaccination drive is a cover for a more nefarious operation.
But more Russians appear to believe the vaccines have been rushed to market, or that the coronavirus epidemic is overblown. In the same Levada Centre survey, 55% of Russians said they were not particularly afraid of falling ill with the coronavirus.
Others have put off vaccinating, saying they are waiting to see what the long-term health side-effects were. A common refrain has been to “wait for the Chumakov vaccine”, which has received a PR-boost in part because it was produced in the laboratory named for a Soviet doctor who helped develop the oral polio vaccine in the 1950s.
“We should underline that there’s very little superstitious fear about the vaccine,” a researcher for Levada Centre told Sever Real, part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “It’s not the most important [factor] and the answer ‘I don’t trust any vaccines’ is that of a minority.”