The silver-haired man with the microphone sounded frustrated and impatient as he fielded a question about how soon he thought the COVID-19 pandemic would end and what it would mean for life in Russia’s capital.
“We are sick, we continue to be sick. People continue to die. At the same time, they do not want to be vaccinated,” Sergei Sobyanin, Moscow’s 62-year-old mayor, told a meeting of the city’s municipal leaders.
What good is it to be the first country in the world to launch a mass vaccination campaign if no one takes advantage of it? he asked rhetorically.
“The percentage of vaccinated people in Moscow is less than in any European city, and for some, it is several times [less]. This is amazing,” he said with exasperation.
A former chief of staff to President Vladimir Putin, the mayor is one of the rare voices in Russia these days calling people out for not doing their civic duty and getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
Unlike many countries that have struggled to get enough vaccine doses for all age groups, Russia’s problem is less about supply and more about trust.
Non-Russian vaccines have not been approved in the country, and Russia’s much-hyped Sputnik V vaccine, developed by the state-sponsored Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, is viewed with hesitancy by many Russians.
Ex-president mentions controversial option
As an incentive, this week Sobyanin proposed having COVID-free sections in restaurants, available only to vaccinated customers.
Not long after Sobyanin made his comments to municipal leaders, former president Dmitry Medvedev, who is deputy chair of Russia’s security council, publicly mused about the prospect of mandatory vaccinations to help pull Russia out of the pandemic.
One of Russia’s largest and most rural regions, Yakutia, in the east, announced this week that it would make vaccinations compulsory, although the head of the republic said people who have a good reason for declining the shot can get an exemption.
The World Health Organization discourages mandatory vaccinations.
In democratic societies, the concern is about taking away people’s freedom to make their own decisions. The WHO also says compulsory vaccinations can erode trust in other public health measures in the long run.
Even in Russia, where heavy-handedness by the state is a common feature of life, mandatory vaccinations could be unpopular.
Putin has suggested he is personally not in favour of it, saying, “Citizens must themselves realize this need.”
Finding takers for Sputnik V
Just how reticent are Russians about getting Sputnik V?
As of the third week of May, only 11 per cent of the population — or 15.7 million people — had received at least one dose. Less than eight per cent had received two doses.
In Canada, the U.K., the U.S. and many European nations, vaccination rates are either closing in on 50 per cent of the population with at least one dose or have already exceeded it, and the results appear to be reflected in improving COVID-19 case numbers.
Russia’s official tally of new COVID-19 cases, which is widely assumed to underestimate the true extent of the spread, has generally hovered between 8,000 and 9,000 new cases daily since mid-March.
And death rates have not decreased either.
“I believe that, for now, we have 500,000 extra deaths due to COVID,” said Alexei Kouprianov, a scientist with Russia’s Academy of Sciences who has been tracking the impact of COVID-19 on Russia’s economy and society.
That figure is far higher than the official government COVID-19 task force death count of 117,000, but it appears to be indirectly backed up by Russia’s official statistics agency, Rosstat.
It reports that deaths some months during the pandemic have been up to 25 per cent higher than usual. Russia’s government has been criticized by many demographers for using a narrow definition of what it considers to be a death from COVID-19. Rosstat, on the other hand, looks at all deaths over a given period during the pandemic and compares the results to the same period in a typical year.
Plenty of doses available
Russia appears to have plenty of vaccine doses to go around and has been making significant efforts to ensure they are available to everyone.
There are temporary clinics in shopping malls and other high-visibility locations around major cities, with qualified nurses and doctors on hand to provide the free shots.
The issue, however, appears to be one of trust.
Sputnik V, which Russia claims is the safest, most effective vaccine in the world, was also the first to be available on a national level anywhere in the world.
And while that may have helped the Putin government win a self-created propaganda fight with other vaccine-producing nations, the speed of its development seems to have left many Russians unsettled.
CBC News spent a day recently in a rural area outside Moscow, where a mobile vaccination clinic was visiting the village of Pyatnitsa.
The community is full of vacation homes, or dachas, but also has many year-round residents.
In more than five hours, CBC News counted just seven people who came up to the converted cargo truck to let the nursing team administer the vaccine.
“We’re scared because we don’t know how [the vaccine] works,” said young mother Oksana Butenko, who walked right past the clinic with her daughter in a stroller.
“Hardly any time has gone by and we don’t know if it works or not.”
Like many Russians, she also said she doesn’t fear COVID-19.
“We are out here in the fresh air, so [COVID-19] is not much of a threat to us. Also, we are young, so even if we do get sick, it’s not going to be that bad.”
CBC News spoke with several people who said they had no intention of getting vaccinated, because they believe the country air and the fresh produce in their garden will keep them safe.
“COVID won’t take me, that’s what I think,” said Nikolay Zalateav, a 72-year-old pensioner.
He said Russians of his generation have lived through far worse than the pandemic.
“My childhood was very difficult,” he said of growing up in the Soviet Union after the Second World War.
‘I’m tired of walking around in a mask’
Julia Morozova, a 34-year-old new mother on maternity leave, was one of the few people who came and rolled up her sleeve at the mobile clinic.
“To be honest, I am very tired of walking around in a mask. My ears are very sore from it and I want to get rid of it faster.”
One of the doctors at the travelling clinic agreed that it’s been difficult to convince Russians they are safer with a shot or two of Sputnik V than without.
“I think the reason is still the lack of information … and the short trial process of the vaccine,” said Dr Elena Kolmakova.
“People think that this vaccine is under-researched and they are somewhat afraid.”
Although the medical journal The Lancet has validated Sputnik V’s effectiveness, some scientists in the U.S. and Europe continue to raise concerns about the transparency of the Russian data.
Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, which developed the vaccine, has pushed back, saying much of the criticism is politically motivated.
Some independent commentators in Russia have placed the blame entirely on the Putin government for overselling the vaccine and for developing it in an atmosphere of secrecy.
They note Putin himself refused to be photographed or filmed taking the vaccine nor has he stated definitively which vaccine he received.
In an editorial in Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s leading independent publication, writer Kirill Martynov said the lack of trust in the vaccine mirrors a decline in trust in other Russian institutions.
Russian autocracy is not equipped for a successful fight against the pandemic, he wrote.
“In a closed, censored, corrupt society, citizens do not expect anything good from the state, and the vaccine is no exception.”