Amidst a global pandemic, Russia appears to be rising above the pandemonium. With a population of approximately 144 million, official figures from the government report that there are only 306 cases and one death in the country as of 21st March – statistics which sound far less threatening compared to those of its neighbours in the West.1 Of those 306, sixteen patients have recovered and been discharged, including thirteen Russians, two Chinese and one Italian citizen.
Whilst Moscow insists that its figures are accurate, there are increasing concerns that the reality is much graver. According to data from the UN, World Bank and the WTO, Russia’s robust travel and trade relationships with China prompts concern about the number of reported cases, particularly as other states with similar relationships with China are experiencing critical local transmission.2 On the other hand, lecturer Dr. Rossman also points to the other fifteen countries that also share land or sea borders with China, in which only 310 cases have been reported as of March 17 – could the low numbers thus be attributed to Russia’s efficient testing and active border control, Moscow having quickly shut down the 2,600 miles border with China, or rather, the lack of reporting and testing?
If the statistics are in fact correct, then what is Russia doing differently, if at all, to its European counterparts in order to contain the virus? The measures seem to echo that of governments in the later stages of the pandemic: foreign nationals have been banned from entering the country until May 1, outdoor events have been prohibited whilst indoor gatherings have been limited to fewer than fifty people, schools have been closed, and two hospitals are being constructed in Moscow to house COVID-19-infected patients. Moreover, Russian researchers at the Smorodintsev Research Institute of Influenza have recently decoded the first full genome of the coronavirus taken from an infected patient.3 It may therefore appear on the surface, as though Putin has been able to react effectively and adopt strict measures from the onset in an attempt to contain the virus – a potential lullaby for Russia’s low numbers.
But as new evidence emerges, there are concerns that the real number of people infected with COVID-19 could be “in the thousands” with many cases having more than likely been labelled as pneumonia.4 In January, Russia’s official statistics agency has recorded a 37% increase of such incidences of the “community-acquired pneumonia” compared to January 2019, with speculation that if there has been mislabeling, the increase could denote nearly 2,000 cases.
Russia’s coronavirus testing has also come under scrutiny, which is monopolised by state research centre of virology and biotechnology, VECTOR, in Novosibirsk. The health ministry has reported that 133,101 tests have been carried out provoking puzzling reactions as experts try to fathom the comparatively low number of positive results.5 One explanation points to the testing regime, with suggestions that Russia’s test is less sensitive and accurate compared to those in other countries. The test produced by VECTOR is hard to access, but reports have suggested that the Russian test can only detect the virus when there are “over 100,000 copies of it per millilitre in a sample” – far more than in tests used by other countries. To compare, a test in America is able to pick up the virus with 6,250 copies.
Thus, the more plausible explanation for Putin’s brash actions could be attributed to the government’s acknowledgement that the coronavirus is rapidly spreading throughout the country and that Russia’s infrastructure is not yet robust to deal with such a pandemic. The country’s economy continues to struggle, hit not only by the spread of the coronavirus but also by the ongoing oil price war with Saudi Arabia.
Just as concerning as the misleading stats, are the accusations that Russia are behind a disinformation campaign which is hindering global efforts to effectively respond to the pandemic; according to US officials, “thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts” have coordinated efforts to misinform and alarm the public.6 Accusations have been further supported by an EU monitoring team, which “have collected 80 examples of disinformation from Russian sources in nearly two months up to 16 March”.7
Drawing resemblance to KGB efforts during the 1980s, which persuaded the masses that American scientists created the HIV virus, the COVID-19 disinformation campaign also pursues to defame the US and worsen the crisis in Western countries by instilling distrust in national health-care systems and “intensifying fear and confusion”.8 Conspiracy theories have also suggested that coronavirus is a biological weapon deployed by China, the US or the UK; that “England…[and] international organisations” are striving to “control Chinese internal affairs”; and that the outbreak has come about as a result of migrants.9
An EU analysis of the campaign has found misinformative material in multiple languages, including English, Italian, Spanish and Arabic. The analysis has also uncovered an evolution in methods of disinformation: instead of creating new content, Russia has been magnifying theories origination from other sources, such as America’s far right, China and Iran.10 Despite the European commission’s observations of an increase in disinformation from Russia, particularly those linked to pro-Kremlin sources, Moscow continues to refute the accusations.
Russia’s trajectory remains just as unpredictable as everywhere else in the world. But with predictions that the country is only just facing the start of a distressing and devastating pandemic, there remains doubts that Russia’s infrastructure will be able to provide for its fallen.
Eleanor Wong is currently studying towards a master’s degree in Peace Research and International Relations at the University of Tübingen. Interests include European politics with a focus on Russian foreign and domestic policies, as well as security and counterterrorism in South East Asia.
- RIA Novosti. “Another 53 cases of Coronavirus infection detected in Russia.” RIA Novosti, March 21, 2020. https://ria.ru/20200321/1568953125.html
- Rossman, J. Why are there so few coronavirus cases in Russia and Africa? The Conversation, March 17, 2020.
- TASS. “Russian researchers fully decode COVID-19 genome”. TASS, March 19. 2020. https://tass.com/science/1132425
- Standish, R. “Fortress Russia Begings to Show Cracks as Coronavirus Spreads”, Foreign Policy, March 18, 2020.
- Reevell, P. “Why is Russia reporting so few COVID-19 cases? Some say it’s a cover-up”, abc News, March 21, 2020.
- Glenza, J. “Coronavirus: US says Russia behind disinformation campaign”, The Guardian, February 22, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/22/coronavirus-russia-disinformation-campaign-us-officials
- Rankin, J. “Russian media ‘spreading Covid-19 disinformation”. The Guardian, March 18, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/18/russian-media-spreading-covid-19-disinformation
- Dudik, A. “Russia Aims to Stir Distrust in Europe on Virus Disinformation”, Bloomberg, March 19, 2020.
- Rankin, March 18, 2020.
- Dudik, March 19, 2020.