Coronavirus in Russia: Pandemic as a political tool

As power-hungry politicians ignore scientific advice during a global pandemic, COVID-19 wreaks havoc in Russia.

Writer: Beata Luchanskaya
Editor: Maria Stoica
Artist: Lucie Gourmet


“We are all invincible if we stand together” announced President Putin on 28th April in a televised address to the nation. As the country braced for its imminent coronavirus peak, Putin painted an image of indestructible national unity with a robust, competent government at its heart. His message was strengthened by official statistics, modelling Russia’s COVID-19 death rate to be a meagre 0.9% – significantly lower than that of its European counterparts.

As of 12th August, Russia reports over 900,000 cases of coronavirus, which places it amongst some of the most affected countries in the world, surpassed only by the United States, Brazil and India. The spike in infections has been accompanied by a whirlwind of accusations from both inside and outside of Russia; mainly, that the government has been drastically downplaying the scale of the pandemic throughout the country. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization rebuked Russia’s official coronavirus statistics in light of an “unusually low” documented death rate. International media outlets like the Financial Times have also speculated that the nation’s coronavirus death toll could be a staggering 70% higher than the official figure.  

It is tempting to direct simplistic accusations at the Russian government. Statistical discrepancies arouse suspicions that the Kremlin is directly manipulating COVID-19 figures, but the reality is far more complex. Putin does not single-handedly forge statistics at his desk. Instead, his healthcare policies implicate Russia’s coronavirus taskforce in a nationwide masking of true figures.

The coronavirus classification system imposed on Russian healthcare workers has resulted in statistical data being skewed by the nature of its collection. A significant proportion of COVID-19 deaths have been omitted from official figures due to pre-existing illnesses or secondary conditions developed by patients as a result of the virus.

Anna Lopatina, a nurse in a hospital in Astrakhan, developed pneumonia as a secondary condition after testing positive for COVID-19. When she passed away in April, her medical death certificate listed pneumonia as the sole cause of death. Similarly, the deaths of hundreds of COVID-19 patients have been attributed to pre-existing cancer, coronary heart disease or diabetes. The state’s power to manipulate official figures is not confined to its work in the Kremlin. Instead, Putin’s influence penetrates the very tools used by healthcare workers in the collection of COVID-19 data.

As the government climbs through every loophole possible to prevent adding numbers to its coronavirus death toll, independent studies suggest the country’s healthcare system continues to struggle to control the virus.

MediaZona, a Russian independent media outlet, reviewed official COVID-19 statistics for Moscow. In May, the government documented 5,260 coronavirus deaths. In contrast, MediaZona’s statistics point to a year-on-year increase of 5,764 total deaths in Moscow compared to May of last year. With thousands of deaths currently left unaccounted for, speculation about Russian statistical forging continues to rage, raising suspicions over the validity of official statistics.

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The coronavirus pandemic comes at a particularly vital point in Putin’s presidency. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, global sanctions have thrown Russia into economic stagnation – with many blaming Putin for markedly decreased standards of living. At a time when presidential popularity is at an all-time low, authorities fear that a poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic would showcase yet another instance of the state failing its people in the face of adversity. In an attempt to secure the support of a nation that doesn’t trust him, Putin has used the pandemic to his advantage.

Russia had barely passed its coronavirus peak as shops, restaurants and hotels were hastily re-opened to the public. Seeing as anti-establishment media outlets were reporting on hospitals nationwide overflowing with critically ill patients, this decision was purely driven by a political agenda too pressing to be delayed by a worldwide pandemic.

On 1st July, Putin called the nation to a vote regarding a series of constitutional amendments that would allow him to remain in power until 2036. It is no coincidence that quarantine measures were lifted just in time for the referendum. The swift quarantine lift was a clear attempt to instill confidence in the public as to the competency of its president – a confidence which Putin hoped would be reflected in the ballot papers.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases in Russia continue to increase at an alarming rate. The nation’s underfunded healthcare system is collapsing and overwhelmed. The government touts a message of  ‘Russian triumph’ over the pandemic, as though it has emerged a victor in the battle against coronavirus.

The president’s theatrics bring to the surface an issue much more frightening than the forging of statistics. Russia is governed by a political system that blatantly ignores scientific advice in its decision-making process. Significant underinvestment in recording technologies has been attributed to a government clearly unmotivated to collect COVID-19 data – instead relying on Putin’s polling figures to advise governmental decisions.

No greater example of this can be found than in Russia’s annual Victory Day Parade. On 24th June, 2,000 war veterans took to the streets of Moscow alongside tanks and military equipment, marking 75 years since the USSR’s victory in World War II. After initially postponing the event, Putin insisted that the celebration was so fundamental to Russia’s pride that it had to be held despite the ongoing pandemic.

Notwithstanding the position of Victory Day as a beloved national holiday, the hosting of such a large-scale event in current times was irresponsible and ill-advised. As opposed to showcasing a Russian spirit left untarnished by the coronavirus, the parade in fact highlighted a government that prioritises popular support over scientific advice. Meanwhile, those protesting the constitutional amendments whilst entirely socially distanced have found themselves subject to harassment, arrest and lengthy incarceration at the government’s pleasure.

Hence, the multi-faceted purpose of the COVID-19 pandemic to Putin becomes apparent. When garnering public support for his government, Putin intentionally declares victory over the virus. However, the president uses the dangers of that same virus to silence those protesting against his constitutional amendments – arresting them on the basis of violating quarantine.

Putin’s constitutional amendments passed with a strong majority of almost 79%. In spite of more politicians speaking out against Putin in Parliament and journalistic scoops from anti-establishment newspapers, it seems increasingly unlikely that we will see any political reversal. Amidst a climate of dishonesty and corruption, the threat that coronavirus poses to public health falls to the wayside. Instead, as often, political intrigue takes the stage.

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