Strategic Comments

JIIA Strategic Comments (2020-6):
The Spread of the Novel Coronavirus Infection in Russia and the Government's Countermeasures

04-28-2020
Hironori Fushita (Research Fellow, The Japan Institute of International Affairs)

Introduction

  The spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) infection in Russia has been slower than in other European countries, but the number of infected people has surged since late March, especially in Moscow, and has exploded since April. As of April 14, the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus in Russia was 201,122 (up 2,774 from the previous day), with 1,694 recovering and 170 dead1. The following article will provide an overview of the spread of the novel coronavirus infection in Russia and the government's countermeasures, as well as the impact of this infection on the future of Russian politics.

1 The spread of the novel coronavirus infection in Russia

  The first cases of COVID-19 infection were confirmed in Russia at the end of January, when two Chinese students were infected. Infections were subsequently found among returnees from China, Italy, France, and Austria, bringing the total number of infected people to 45 as of March 13 (24 of them Muscovites); on March 17 the number of infected people was 114, and two days later, on March 19, the first deaths from COVID-19 infection were recorded. At this point in time, there had not yet been a spike in the number of infected people in Russia.
  In late March, the spread of the COVID-19 infection in Russia became more serious. On March 25, a day after President Vladimir Putin inspected a hospital in Moscow where the infected were being treated, the number of new infections rose to 163, surpassing 100 for the first time, and the number has risen rapidly ever since: on March 27, 1,036 infections were confirmed across Russia, and on March 31, the hospital director who guided President Putin on his inspection was also confirmed to be infected. Further details will be given in the next section but, despite various measures taken by the Russian government to combat the COVID-19 infection, it has been unable to control the increase in the number of infections, with more than 1,000 new infections confirmed every day since April 7, bringing the total number of infections to more than 20,000 at the time of this writing on April 14.

2 The Russian government's countermeasures to the novel coronavirus infection2

  The Russian government's response to the novel coronavirus infection was swift. The initial measures taken by the Russian government included (1) restrictions on traffic to and from certain countries and a ban on the entry of citizens and residents of certain countries, (2) quarantine and observation measures for those entering and returning from certain countries, and (3) restrictions on the export of certain goods such as masks, etc. Later, in response to the spread of the infection within Russia, more stringent measures were taken, including (4) the closure of borders, and (5) restrictions on the activities of citizens and the closure of schools, parks, and commercial facilities.
  First, let us look at (1), the restrictions on traffic to and from countries where the infection is spreading and the ban on entry of citizens and residents of certain countries. Following the spread of the COVID-19 infection in China, the Russian government decided to suspend direct rail service between Moscow and Beijing on January 31, and suspended air passenger flights to and from China from February 1. It also suspended visa waivers for Chinese tourists and stopped issuing new work visas from February 1. Similar measures have been taken for other countries outside of China where the infection is spreading: the issuance of regular and transit visas to Iranians has been suspended as of February 28 and air travel to and from South Korea has been restricted beginning March 1. Since March 7, Iranians have been banned from entering the country and, due to the spread of the infection in other European countries, Italians have been banned from entering the country since March 13, flights to and from EU member states, Norway and Switzerland have been restricted since March 16, and flights to and from the United Kingdom, the United States and the UAE have been restricted since March 20.
  Next, let us look at (2), the quarantine and observation measures for those entering and returning from countries where the infection is spreading. On February 5, the Russian government dispatched a military transport plane to bring back 144 Russians from Wuhan to receive isolation care at a special facility on the outskirts of the western Siberian city of Tyumen. On February 23, eight Russian passengers disembarking from the cruise ship Diamond Princess were transferred to a special facility on the outskirts of Kazan, a city on the banks of the Volga River, for transitional care. As March progressed, these quarantine measures for incoming and outgoing passengers were more widely targeted. On March 5, the city of Moscow decided to impose a 14-day quarantine on all visitors to the city from China, South Korea, Italy, Iran, Germany, France and Spain, where the infection continues to spread. Newcomers from the US, the UK, EU member states, Ukraine and Belarus were also subject to the 14-day quarantine as of March 16. In addition, as the spread of the infection has not stopped outside the country, the Russian government has taken even harder measures: it has banned foreigners from entering the country in principle from March 18 to May 1, and it has closed Russia's borders as of March 30.
  On March 4, Prime Minister Mishustin decided to temporarily ban the export of medical supplies, such as masks, white coats, bandages, protective clothing, gloves, gauze, and goggles, except for humanitarian aid. In anticipation of disruptions to production and distribution due to the global spread of the infection, the Russian government has also decided to temporarily restrict exports of wheat and other grains from April 1 to June 30. Given that Russia is the world's largest wheat exporter, these export restrictions could have an impact on international markets.
  In parallel with these external responses, measures to impose certain restrictions on civil life, as described in (5) above, were also implemented in order to prevent the spread of the infection within Russia. For example, on March 16, the city of Moscow banned any large outdoor or indoor event with more than 50 people, and also decided to close all schools in the city from March 21 to April 12 (at the national level, this has been in effect from March 23 to April 12). In addition, the city of Moscow has, in principle, imposed a home quarantine on senior citizens over the age of 65 and those with chronic disease from March 26 to April 14.
  In the midst of such measures being taken in Moscow, President Putin inspected a hospital in Moscow on March 24 and the following day, the 25th, sent a message to the entire nation, calling for (1) the people to stay at home from March 28 to April 5 as a paid "non-working week" in which the State would guarantee wages, with the exception of public institutions, hospitals, pharmacies, and shops selling necessities (the second message, issued on April 2, subsequently extended the paid "non-working days" to April 30); (2) the automatic extension of social benefits and privileges for six months; (3) additional benefits per child for families with children up to the age of three; (4) an increase in unemployment benefits; (5) a postponement of loan repayments in the event of a sharp drop in income; (6) a postponement of tax payments by small and medium-sized enterprises; and (7) a postponement of the referendum on constitutional amendments scheduled for April 22.3 In response to this message from President Vladimir Putin, the Russian government decided to close restaurants and bars from March 28 to April 5, and also banned resort sanatoriums, pensions and hotels from accepting tourists until June 1. It also recommended that local governments cancel major events, close movie theaters and other facilities, and restrict the movement of citizens.
  The city of Moscow has taken even harder measures, closing down the city's restaurants, cafes, shops selling non-essentials, barbershops, beauty parlors and parks from March 28, and imposing a curfew on all citizens from March 30. As a result, their ability to go out was limited to emergency situations, essential commuting, purchases of daily necessities and medicines at the nearest store, walks with their pets within 100 meters of their homes, and rubbish disposal. Moscow has also indicated its intention to create a system to monitor people's movement by applying information technology ("travel passes" using QR codes have been issued since April 1, and "digital permits" have been required to travel by private cars and public transport since April 15). A system has been in operation since April 3 to confirm through a smartphone app the location of people with mild cases or asymptomatic infections who are undergoing home treatment.
  The federal government instructed local governments to follow Moscow's example and on March 30 curfews were imposed in the second largest city, St. Petersburg, and 14 regions; on April 1 a travel permit system was introduced in the Vladimir Region and the Republic of Tatarstan. In conjunction with curfews, administrative penalties for violators were tightened at both the federal and local levels.
In addition to the above-mentioned measures to contain the spread of the infection, the establishment of a new testing method to replace the PCR test that can quickly determine the presence of infection and the development of a new vaccine are underway. The former was registered with the Federal Service for Surveillance in Healthcare (Roszdravnadzor) on April 6, and the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (known as VECTOR) is expected to start clinical trials of the latter this summer.

3 Impact on Russian politics

  Despite the measures described in the previous section, the increase in the number of people infected with the COVID-19 in Russia has not been contained and, as President Putin mentioned in his speech on April 2, it is likely that the spread of the disease has not yet reached its peak at this time. The president is calling on the federal government and local governments to take tougher measures.
  On the other hand, President Putin's series of emergency measures seen in the previous section appear to be viewed positively by the Russian public.4 According to the "Public Opinion Foundation (FOM)," Russia's government-affiliated polling agency, President Vladimir Putin's approval rating had fallen to around 60 percent since it became clear in early March that a proposed constitutional amendment had been solidified and that Putin could run again in the 2024 presidential election, but it recovered to 64 percent after the speech on March 25 in which he laid out emergency measures. Another private polling agency, the "Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM)," also reports that Putin's approval rating has recovered to 71.5 percent. The recovery in the approval rating may be partly due to the Russian national character of "uniting in the face of an emergency," but it can be more directly attributed to the emergency measures, including the paid "non-working days," that have been taken (according to a VCIOM survey, 72% of the public supported the speech on April 2 that extended the "non-working days" to one month).
  The Russian people had lost confidence in President Putin since he launched his pension reform in late August 2018 (according to the aforementioned "Public Opinion Foundation" survey, his approval rating plummeted from 78% to 63%). This was because the "implicit social contract" of supporting the Putin regime in exchange for a livelihood appeared to have been broken by the regime. This seems to have had a considerable impact on the core of the regime, and the discussions on constitutional reform that have been underway since January of this year have included such things as the guarantee of a minimum wage and the introduction of a price indexing system for pension payments in order to more clearly demonstrate that "Russia is a social state". Such a strengthening of social security could be said to be intended to re-establish the "implicit social contract" with the people and gain political support. This time around, the paid "non-working days", automatic extensions of social benefits and privileges, assistance to households with children, and measures to help small businesses could all lead to reinforcing the "implicit social contract".
  On the other hand, there has been criticism that the countermeasures against COVID-19 have some aspects that could lead to forced obedience to the regime. As we saw in the previous section, the city of Moscow and other parts of the country have put in place a system of citizen surveillance using information technology and smartphones. South Korea put in place a similar system before Russia, but it has not been without criticism from the perspective of handling personal information and protecting privacy. In Russia, as in South Korea, concerns have emerged about authorities monitoring citizens' behavior under the guise of quarantine (in response to these concerns, the mayor of Moscow has pledged to protect personal information and has said that, once the current alert is lifted, he will destroy all data collected when issuing travel permits). In addition, some opposition parties have pointed out that the measures against infectious diseases could be used to build a larger surveillance system to crack down on anti-establishment movements. 5

Conclusion

  As noted at the beginning of this paper, the number of infected people in Russia continues to rise, and it is difficult to see an end to this in the near future. It is also difficult to predict whether the measures taken by the Russian government so far will be successful. If there is one thing that can be said, it is that successful handling of this problem will strengthen Putin's image as a "president who can handle a crisis" and lead to a reestablishment of the "implicit social contract" between the once-frayed regime and the people. This will dictate the direction of Russia's political system after 2024, when President Putin's term expires.

(Dated April 14, 2020)



1 https://www.interfax.ru/chronicle/novyj-koronavirus-v-kitae.html (accessed on April 14, 2020)
2 The descriptions in this section are based primarily on information from Interfax (https://www.interfax.ru/chronicle/novyj-koronavirus-v-kitae.html (accessed April 14, 2020)) and TASS (https://tass.ru/obschestvo/8057143 (accessed April 10, 2020)).
3 http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/page/37 (accessed April 10, 2020).
4 https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-52035171 (accessed April 10, 2020)
5 https://www.yomiuri.co.jp/world/20200406-OYT1T50176/ (accessed on April 10, 2020)