Vladimir Isachenkov | Associated Press
MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered most Russians not to work a week later this month amid rising COVID-19 cases and deaths, and urged reluctant citizens to get vaccinated.
The government’s task force on coronavirus has reported 1,028 deaths in the past 24 hours, the highest since the start of the pandemic. As a result, the death toll in Russia was 226 353, which is the highest in Europe.
Putin said he supported the government’s proposal to introduce a non-working period from October 30 to next week, when four days out of seven are already official public holidays. According to him, in some regions, where the situation is most dangerous, the non-working period may begin on Saturday and last after November 7.
“Our task today is to protect the life and health of our citizens and minimize the consequences of a dangerous infection,” Putin said during a video call with high-ranking officials. “To achieve this, it is necessary, first of all, to slow down the rate of infection and mobilize additional reserves of the health care system, which is currently under heavy load.”
Daily mortality rates from coronavirus in Russia have been on the rise for several weeks and for the first time over the weekend topped 1,000 amid low vaccination rates, weak public attitudes towards precautions and the government’s reluctance to tighten restrictions. Only about 45 million Russians – about a third of nearly 146 million people – are fully vaccinated.
The non-business period should help limit proliferation by preventing people from entering offices and busy public transport, but Moscow and many other cities have not restricted access to restaurants, cafes, bars, theaters and gyms.
When the Cabinet of Ministers proposed the measure on Tuesday, many Russians rushed to book flights to Black Sea resorts to take advantage of the break.
Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, who heads the working group, stressed that the non-working week should mean restricting access to restaurants, theaters and other entertainment venues, adding that regional authorities will impose restrictions.
She especially urged Russians to refrain from traveling to other regions during this period and stressed the need for relatives of those infected to stay at home.
It was not immediately clear which private enterprises would have to close down under Putin’s decree, other than civil servants and employees of state-owned companies. In a similar measure, at the start of the pandemic, many private and public companies in “vital” sectors of the economy were allowed to continue operating.
The Cabinet of Ministers has developed compensation measures for businesses to help cope with the economic shock, including lump sum payments equivalent to the minimum monthly wage per employee and low-interest loans.
Calling on the Russians to give injections, Putin said that “this is a matter of your life and safety, as well as the health of your loved ones.”
“There are only two ways to overcome this period – to get sick or to get the vaccine,” he said. “Better to make a vaccine. Why wait for illness and its dire consequences? Please show responsibility and take the necessary measures to protect yourself, your health and your loved ones. “
The Russian leader, who received the domestic Sputnik V vaccine earlier this year, said he was perplexed by the hesitation over the vaccine even among his close friends.
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Putin said. “We have a reliable and effective vaccine. The vaccine does reduce the risk of illness, serious complications and death. ”
He approved a proposal by the Cabinet of Ministers to provide two days of paid leave to those vaccinated to facilitate vaccination.
Despite the fact that in August 2020 Russia became the first country in the world to authorize vaccinations against coronavirus and has sufficient supplies, its citizens were reluctant to get vaccinated, and skepticism is explained by conflicting signals from the authorities.
While glorifying Sputnik V and three other domestic vaccines, the state-controlled media frequently criticized Western vaccines, which many saw as fueling doubts about vaccines in general.
Golikova stressed that most of the deceased have not been vaccinated recently. She said 87% of hospital beds allocated to patients with COVID-19 are full, and in some provinces that number is as high as 95%.
The increase in the number of infected people forced some regional authorities to suspend the provision of certain medical services, as medical institutions paid special attention to patients with coronavirus. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted the situation “very sad”, noting that the level of vaccination in these regions was particularly low.
Putin warned regional leaders against trying to sugarcoat the statistics, saying that “a large number of new infections does not mean poor performance” by the authorities. “This shows the effectiveness of the regional teams, not the other way around,” he said.
So far, the Kremlin has ruled out nationwide isolation like the one at the start of the pandemic that hit the economy and undermined Putin’s popularity, instead giving regional authorities the power to decide on local restrictions.
Many of Russia’s 85 regions have already restricted attendance at major public events and have introduced digital codes confirming vaccinations or previous illness for access to restaurants, theaters and other places. Some have made vaccinations mandatory for certain government officials and people over the age of 60.
In Moscow, however, life goes on as usual: restaurants and cinemas are crowded, crowds fill nightclubs and karaoke bars, and commuters widely ignore bans on the use of masks on public transport, even when intensive care units are overcrowded.
Health professionals expressed bewilderment at the vaccine skepticism and neglect of precautions. “I think about sleepless nights when a huge number of patients come to us who haven’t even bothered to use banal protective equipment,” said Dr. Natavan Ibragimova from Moscow Hospital No. 52, where the intensive care unit was filled to capacity.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said that unvaccinated people over 60 years old will be required to stay at home. He also told companies to have at least a third of their employees work remotely for three months starting October 25.
Dr Catherine Smallwood, COVID-19 Incident Manager at the World Health Organization Europe, said vaccination rates at 30% or lower in Russia and Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and Romania are “of particular concern.”
“It is clear that in countries with low vaccination rates, we are seeing serious consequences of the pandemic now in terms of mortality and hospitalization,” she said.
The government task force has registered more than 8 million infections, and according to the official death toll from COVID-19, Russia has the fifth largest number of deaths from a pandemic in the world after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico.
However, the state statistics agency Rosstat, which also keeps records of deaths in which the virus was not considered the main cause, reported a much higher death toll – about 418,000 as of August.
Associated Press contributors Jamie Kiten in Geneva and Kostya Manenkov in Moscow contributed.