Vaccine scepticism means just under a third of the Russian population is vaccinated and the government admitted last week that it had “lost the information campaign” to persuade its people to take the pandemic seriously.
The fourth wave is firmly established in Russia. Russia is reporting record daily infection numbers. After hovering at around 800 a day for several months, the daily death toll shot past 1,000 at the weekend, a record toll since the start of the pandemic. But the latest “excess deaths” report, for August because of the usual two-month lag, shows that numbers are lower than before, says Chris Weafer, founder and CEO of Macro Advisory in a note.
Russia’s official death toll is the highest in Europe and the re-emergence of the virus is posing a threat to the whole of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region.
“Much is being made in European media of the fact that the total number officially recorded as dying from COVID is now at 222,315, the highest in Europe. That, of course, is not a great surprise, as Russia has by far the largest population in Europe,” says Weafer.
The authorities have also prioritised the economy over public health. After the initial lockdown was imposed last April, the restrictions were withdrawn by the end of summer and not reinstated despite the arrival of a second and third wave. The Russian economy bounced back strongly and continues to perform well, but by some estimates based on the excess death numbers around 600,000 Russians have died as a result of the epidemic.
Now the fourth wave is getting underway; the authorities have started to reimpose restrictions like compulsory mask-wearing in an effort to manage the demand at hospitals that are already under strain. Over 30 regions have imposed local lockdowns, but officials say there will be no federal level lockdown and Moscow officials also say that they have no plans for any tighter restrictions.
“The government wants to avoid any measures that might disrupt the economic recovery and are more closely watching the hospital capacity, i.e. ability to deal with the crisis, than the reported numbers,” Weafer said.
The vaccination campaign continues, but has been a failure. After the mass distribution of the Sputnik V vaccine was launched in December 2020 the Kremlin said it expected to get to herd immunity of 60% of the population vaccinated by September 2021, but only 35% of the population have received a first vaccine dose and 33% are fully vaccinated. Russia has one of the highest rates of vaccine scepticism globally.
As the public health authorities scramble to cope, the Minister of Healthcare has called for older doctors who retired rather than work with infected patients to get vaccinated and return to work. He also said that 235,000 out of 255,000 COVID beds are full as of mid-October, reflecting the size of the problem.
Despite the growing problem Russia continues to open up to the rest of the world and charter flights to favourite holiday destinations such as Turkey have resumed. Russia will begin regular air travel with the Bahamas, Iran, the Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Slovenia, Tunisia, Sweden and Thailand starting November 9th.
Russia’s problems are soon to be those of its neighbours too, as Russia remains a major destination for migrant labour in the CIS, which is driving the epidemics in many of its neighbouring markets. Macro Advisors published a summary of the situation in selected markets in the CIS:
Kazakhstan. New infections are down again. Nonetheless, the government’s algorithm puts seven regions in the red zone, up from five last week. Six are in the green zone and five are in the yellow zone. Nightclubs have reopened for clients with green Ashyq status, with varying restrictions depending on the zone. About 38% of the population have received two doses (up from 36% last week), and 43% have received at least one dose. Sputnik has been the most popular vaccine, but Pfizer is expected in October.
Uzbekistan. New cases are down again, and COVID-19 has ceased to be a news item. 22.5% of the population have received two doses up from 21% last week. A further 38% have received one dose.
Ukraine. New cases continue to soar. Five oblasts are in the red zone, requiring all malls, markets, gyms, entertainment and mass events to be shut down. There are also restrictions on movement between regions. Officials are saying they expect the peak to come at the end of October. Ukraine’s Health Ministry recorded 538 COVID-related deaths on October 18, the ministry announced on its website. This breaks the previous record of 481 deaths recorded on April 6. The ministry also counted 15,579 new cases of COVID-19 on October 18. Also on October 18, the chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Health Committee Mykhailo Radutsky told reporters that Kyiv’s municipal hospitals are at 70% occupancy for COVID-related cases, which formally puts the city at the Red quarantine level. However, it is up to the municipality itself to declare the quarantine level. Some 14.2% of the population have had two doses, up from 13.2% the previous week, and a further 18% have had at least one dose. The government is gradually widening the list of professions and activities for which vaccination is obligatory.
Armenia. Cases continue to soar. One reason for this is that testing has increased since October 1st. A state of emergency is in place until December. 2017 out of 2,877 COVID beds are filled, and there have been statements from various officials saying that all beds are full. Some 6% of the population has had two vaccine doses. 14% have had one dose.
Azerbaijan. New cases were up again last week. This seems to be a seasonal uptick. There has been no change in the quarantine measures, which remain in place until November 1. 41% of the population has received two vaccine doses, up from 40% the previous week. Azerbaijan has started to vaccinate teenagers, the first country in the region to do so.
Belarus. New cases in Belarus have breached the 2,000 daily level. Independent media have cast doubt on these numbers based on internal documents at a regional level. The President will hold a special public meeting to discuss COVID next week. About 5,000 new COVID beds were added last week, and there have been discussions of oxygen shortages. About 20% of the population has had two doses, from 18.5% last week. A further 27% have received one dose.
Georgia. New cases jumped sharply last week. The authorities do not have a single explanation and are studying the situation, which may be related to the harvest in some regions. About 22% of the population have had two doses, up from 20% last week. A further 27% have had one dose. The authorities are sounding increasingly strident that more vaccination is necessary, and the rate seems to be slowing down.