MOSCOW - Russia tightened controls aimed at combating the spread of the coronavirus on Monday, with Moscow introducing temporary quarantine measures, and the Kremlin moving to extend the lockdown nationwide.
The new restrictions came as President Vladimir Putin discussed the coronavirus, among other issues, with President Donald Trump in a phone call that the Kremlin insisted was at Washington’s request.
The conversation came as Putin made clear he recognized the growing threat of the COVID-19 outbreak. He appeared for his second televised national address on the issue Monday afternoon with a new sense of urgency.
“If you value your life, you should remain home,” he said, addressing elderly Russians, in particular. “God helps those who help themselves,” added the Russian leader.
The new tone came as a government task force said suspected cases of COVID-19 had swelled past the 1,800 mark with nine deaths — numbers that continued to place Russia far lower than other global coronavirus hotspots but that Kremlin allies and critics alike now acknowledge reflect some degree of underreporting.
Moscow through the looking glass
Under new rules that went into effect midnight Sunday, the vast majority of Moscow’s 15 million inhabitants now face a blanket “home isolation quarantine” — with exceptions for trips to local supermarkets and pharmacies, as well as walking pets or taking out trash.
City authorities also announced that a system of smart QR codes would be developed to track people moving about the capital, as well as plans to retrofit additional public hospitals and private clinics to accept COVID-19 patients.
“The situation with the spread of coronavirus has entered a new phase,” Mayor Sergey Sobyanin wrote in a blog post explaining the new rules with Moscow now an epicenter of the virus threat.
“The extremely negative turn of events that we see in the largest cities of Europe and the USA is cause for enormous concern for the lives and health of our citizens,” Sobyanin said.
Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin later issued an appeal to Russia’s far-flung regional governors to follow Moscow’s lead — calling the quarantine a “logical extension of the president and the government’s policies to battle the coronavirus.”
Putin’s 'workless week'
Moscow's restrictions seemed to upstage the “workless week” introduced by Putin in an address to the nation last week.
While the Russian leader requested people to stay home, his appeal fell far short of the quarantines and self-isolation measures now commonplace in cities across Europe, the United States and Asia.
Some Russians seemed to interpret the “workless week” as an unexpected paid vacation — a factor that Sobyanin said played a role in the decision to close Moscow down.
“Movement across the city has been cut by two-thirds, and that’s very good,” Sobaynin wrote in the blog. “But it’s also obvious that far from everyone has heard us.”
Amid a spell of spring-like weather over the weekend, parks were so crowded that authorities resorted to blasting public service announcements from passing ambulances. The message: Go home.
Media reports also noted a run on meat and charcoal at local supermarkets, suggesting the outdoor barbecue season was, or soon would be, in full swing.
Meanwhile, there was a spike in booked flights from Moscow to the southern resort city of Sochi — so much so that the region’s local governor, Benjamin Kondratiev, warned on social media that “this is not a week of extra leave or a holiday,” and ordered city attractions closed.
Good cop, bad cop
Russia’s political chatter centered on the seeming gulf between Sobyanin and Putin over how to respond to the contagion.
Had the mayor undermined the president? And who was in charge?
“The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” Genady Gudkov, a former member of Parliament with ties to the opposition, wrote in a post on Facebook. “Either Putin is losing control, or differences among the elite are dangerously strong.”
Others argued that Putin was merely distancing himself from more unpopular restrictions — at least until they were trial-ballooned by the hapless Moscow mayor — in effect, playing good cop to Sobyanin’s bad.
Putin threw Sobyanin “before the firing squad, and himself remained in the shadows, giving speculation that Sobyanin is acting on his own,” wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst with R.Politik, in a post to her Telegram channel.
Stanovaya chalked the showdown to the shifting improvisational nature of Putin’s rule, one in which “circumstances rule.”
“And who rules the circumstances, rules Russia,” added Stanovaya.