As the number of Wuhan virus cases skyrockets around the world, Russia reports only 367 cases, a surprisingly small number given Russia’s strong travel and trade relationship with China.
Reason for skepticism
Russia closed its 2,600 mile border with China and stopped issuing visas to Chinese nationals on January 30th, which may have helped contain the spread of the virus.
“Testing and identification of cases, tracing contacts, isolation, these are all measures that WHO proposes and recommends, and they were in place all the time,” Dr. Melita Vujnoic, the world Health Organization’s representative in Russia told CNN. “And the social distancing is the second component that really also started relatively early.”
Though the Russian health ministry reports conducting 163,529 tests for coronavirus,
the Russian test is 10-16 times less sensitive than tests in the US, according to the Russian medical news cite, PCR News. It is likely many individuals positive for coronavirus wrongly tested negative. Russian doctors have also raised concerns that the government is deliberately minimizing the number of reported cases.
Anatasia Vasilyeva, head of Russia’s Alliance of Doctors trade union, claimed the Russian government was covering up coronavirus cases as pneumonia. Moscow had 6,921 cases of pneumonia in January, an increase of 37 percent from last year. The Moscow Department of Health denied Vasileyva’s claims.
An anonymous Russian doctor told the CBC that he did not report several cases he suspected were coronavirus because he did not want to be quarantined and have his offices shut down by authorities.
It is unsurprising Russian citizens are skeptical of the government’s reported numbers, given its reputation for misleading the public. Last August, Moscow repeatedly lied about a nuclear-reactor explosion at a military test site, playing down the severity of an accident that killed seven people.
Moscow has followed Beijing’s lead in controlling the coronavirus narrative. China allowed the coronavirus to spread worldwide by silencing whistleblowers and detaining doctors such as Li Wenliang who tried to warn about the outbreak. Beijing shut down media sources that did not parrot Chinese Communist Party talking points.
Russian authorities forced news outlets to take down “fake” news about coronavirus, threatening to revoke licenses of outlets that “sow panic.” The Govorit Magadan news website was ordered to take down a story about the death of a resident suspected of having coronavirus. Local police and regional FSB officers opened an administrative case against a woman for posting on social media that there were coronavirus cases in the Amur region, claiming it was bad information.
On March 4th, Putin claimed false information was part of an organized campaign from ‘abroad’ designed to create panic.
The outbreak has also given the Kremlin a reason to implement their advanced surveillance state technology/capabilities? On March 17th, Putin toured the “Safe City” surveillance center, which uses artificial intelligence and facial recognition software. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin told Putin they were able to track 95 percent of people with coronavirus using the technology.
Putin’s power grab
In a surprise visit to the Duma on March 10th to endorse a Constitutional amendment allowing him to run for two additional terms as President, Putin argued the stability he provides is necessary to overcome economic downturn, low oil prices and coronavirus. Protests against the changes were canceled in Moscow and St. Petersburg this weekend due to restrictions on public gatherings aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.
The social distancing restrictions have not, however, altered plans for the nationwide vote on the amendment on April 22nd.
Whether the Wuhan virus continues to spread in Russia or not, Vladimir Putin will continue to exploit the crisis to consolidate power.