President Vladimir Putin acknowledged Russia’s growing crisis surrounding the spread of the novel coronavirus — postponing a constitutional referendum whose key provision provides a path for the longtime Russian leader to retain power beyond the end of his current term and far into the next decade.
The nationwide vote was to have taken place in April.
“The absolute priority for us is the health, life and safety of people. Therefore, I believe that the vote should be postponed until a later date,” said Putin in a hastily scheduled address to the nation on Wednesday.
The decision came as a government task force said the number of suspected coronavirus cases in Russia surged past the 800 mark, with the government embracing tighter restrictions and acknowledging the deaths of two elderly patients due to complications from the virus. This marked the first time Russia attributed deaths to a global contagion.
“What is happening today in many Western countries, both in Europe and overseas, can become our immediate future,” warned Putin. "We must understand that Russia, simply because of its geographic location, cannot isolate itself from the threat.”
Seeking to halt contagion spread, Putin declared next week a “non-working week” and urged Russians to remain at home. Grocery stores and pharmacies would remain open.
Putin also imposed a series of tax breaks and debt relief for Russians and small-to-mid size business — measures aimed at staving off additional economic fallout from the virus.
In a separate move, Putin ordered the army to carry out drills among its nuclear, biological and chemical protection units — part of what the Defense Ministry said was an effort to be prepared to fight COVID-19, should it be necessary.
A change in tone
For weeks, Russian authorities had projected an air of confidence about their handling of the disease — with Putin praising his government’s containment policies as having the contagion largely “under control” as COVID-19 ravaged other parts of the globe.
Additionally, preparations for the April vote moved forward as authorities largely played down the coronavirus threat — creating a split screen reality as Russian health officials called for “social distancing” while the Kremlin enlisted celebrities and padded the referendum with conservative populist causes to encourage Russians to come out and vote.
As recently as this week, Putin paid a visit to a Moscow coronavirus infection ward where he donned a yellow hazmat suit and later praised doctors’ performance as “like clockwork.”
“It is obvious that the people know what to do, how to do it,” said Putin to local staff at the time. “This is a good example of how this kind of work should be organized.”
Yet the hospital’s chief doctor, Denis Protsenko, warned the Russian leader of an impending “Italian scenario” should current infection rates continue.
“If there is a big spike, and Moscow is headed there, our hospital is ready to transform," said Protsenko, adding, "We must still prepare for the worst.”
Later, a key Putin advisor also acknowledged what government critics had long argued: the number of people infected with the coronavirus was "significantly" higher than official figures.
“The problem is that the volume of testing is very low and no one has a clear picture" of the situation in Russia and the world, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin told President Putin during a meeting on Tuesday.
"The picture that is unfolding is serious,” added Sobyanin, who announced Moscow would expand testing from 3,000 to 13,000 a day by week’s end in order to get a better sense of the threat.
New restrictions, lingering doubts
Over the past few weeks, Russia has gradually tightened restrictions across the country — halting cultural and sports events, closing schools, and instructing seniors over the age of 65 to stay home, among other measures.
The parliament has also rushed through new tougher penalties threatening up to seven years in prison for anyone who violates government-imposed quarantines or spreads “disinformation” regarding the disease.
Those seemed squarely aimed at government critics who have long warned that officials were purposefully underreporting infection rates due to poor testing or pressured doctors to classify potential COVID-19 infections as pneumonia or the flu.
“The authorities have been lying to us,” says Anastasia Vasilyeva, the head of Russia’s Alliance of Doctors, an industry group affiliated with the opposition, in an interview with VOA. “And instead of medics or epidemiologists, politicians are in charge of the response, leading with their own ambitions.”
Despite pressure to keep silent, some medical professionals have questioned whether COVID-19 had yet to reach epidemic proportions in Russia and why medical equipment was already in short supply.
“Protective masks are in deficit, and that’s not even mentioning respirators. It’s almost impossible to get them,” says Vselovod Shurkhay, a neurosurgeon reached by VOA at a local Moscow hospital.
“We already don’t have any resources to prepare for it. So, my question is, ‘Guys, what did you do for almost two months?’ Next to nothing,” added Shurkhay.
Meanwhile, others questioned the wisdom of the Russian leader calling for a “non-working” week rather than mandating home quarantine for the general population. They say many Russians would see it as a chance to get out and have some fun with their friends.
“The seriousness of the situation has yet to reach the “wide general masses,” wrote Leonid Volkov, a key opposition figure, in a post to Facebook.
“And an unexpected vacation, alas, could lead to increased, not decreased contact between people,” he added.