In August, the Russian authorities celebrated their victory in the international vaccine race when they approved the Sputnik V vaccine against the coronavirus. The fast registration was met with skepticism in Europe, but research appeared to demonstrate the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, though critics say that Russia still has not provided raw data.
However, it turns out that it is easier to produce a vaccine than persuade citizens to get a shot. Mass vaccination began in Russia in January, but so far, only 16 million people, or about 11 percent of the country’s population, have received two doses of vaccine. In the U.S., where mass vaccination started in December, more than 150 million citizens have been fully vaccinated, or about 46 percent of the population.
So far, Russia has registered four COVID vaccines in total. Besides Sputnik V, Russian drugmakers have produced Sputnik Light, EpiVacCorona, and CoviVac. Sputnik Light is a one-dose vaccine, and developers don’t hide that it is less effective than Sputnik V. Producers of EpiVacCorona announced recently that half of volunteers who were vaccinated with the EpiVacCorona lost antibodies nine months after the inoculation. Results of CoviVac trials still haven’t been published, though shots are available at hospitals. So, Sputnik V looks like the best option, though scientists doubt that its efficacy is over 90 percent, as claimed by the developers. Moreover, the World Health Organization still hasn’t approved Sputnik V because of the lack of data. Concern about these specific vaccines is one reason why many in Russia are reluctant to get inoculated.
But—as in the U.S. and elsewhere—there are other factors that contribute to vaccine hesitancy, too. From the beginning, the government’s pandemic response has been characterized by inconsistencies and contradictions, priming Russian citizens not to trust the government’s word on vaccines. Some measures introduced in Moscow last spring were extreme. In addition to the closure of public places, residents were required to have digital permits to leave home, walks were limited to three times a week, and those who tested positive for COVID were tracked with an app that required them to send selfies to authorities at random times (sometimes during the night) to prove that they were at home. At the same time, the government decided not to cancel the constitutional referendum in July, the primary purpose of which was to allow President Vladimir Putin to rule till 2036. While millions of Russians were welcomed at the polling stations, the government banned peaceful protests against constitutional changes, citing “safety measures”; the protests ended with arrests.
Experts and regular folks alike are also questioning official COVID data in Russia. Kirill Volkov, a geneticist from St. Petersburg, points out that last week there was an unusual decrease in new COVID cases in Moscow, followed by a significant rise. “This dynamic doesn’t seem real,” says Volkov. “It looks like officials understated the tallies of cases several days in a row. As a result, citizens don’t understand why they need to get vaccinated if the situation is not that bad.”
A situation where the government can’t give clear, sensical instructions to fight the pandemic might sound familiar to American readers, but the level of confusion in Russia seems to be higher. Before I departed Russia to come to the U.S. in December, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin declared that Russia’s capital was close to victory over COVID, most restaurants were open, and the subway was overcrowded like before the pandemic. The situation in the U.S. seemed more alarming, as the number of coronavirus cases and deaths were shockingly high. I noticed that the Americans took COVID more seriously (at least in Phoenix, where I am currently residing): They wore masks even outdoors, many restaurants were closed, and students preferred to study online. I started to cover my face outdoors too, got tested for COVID every week, and couldn’t wait till the vaccine became available. Now I’m vaccinated, as are almost all the people I communicate with in the U.S. States are relaxing pandemic restrictions, and fewer people wear masks. On Monday, coronavirus deaths dropped below 300 per day for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, the number of new daily COVID cases last week returned to 2020’s peak. Russian authorities seem to be panicking. It took them months to realize that citizens were not eager to get vaccinated, despite easy access to free shots. While Putin said repeatedly that the COVID vaccine would not be compulsory, the Kremlin plan has changed recently. More than 10 Russian regions, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, have ordered businesses and institutions involved in retail, health, education, and public transportation to ensure that 60 percent of their employees are fully inoculated by Aug. 15. The government is still trying to distance itself from mandatory vaccination: Last week, Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said that measures introduced by the heads of several regions didn’t mean that all the population would be required to get shots. But governors in Russia are not that independent and usually don’t do anything without the signal from the top, so it’s hard to believe that the Kremlin is not behind this decision.
Based on my conversations with people living in different regions, it seems there are no problems with access to the vaccines. For example, in Moscow, residents can get vaccinated even in shopping malls. But the objections sound a lot like those you hear from vaccine skeptics in the U.S. “I don’t want to inject into my body a substance which wasn’t tested properly,” says Marina, a 30-year-old resident of Smolensk, a city 260 miles west of Moscow. She adds that she is more afraid of getting vaccinated than getting COVID.
Like in many other countries, conspiracy theories in Russia are another reason why people are reluctant to receive vaccines. Last summer, I overheard women saying that the only reason the government required people to wear masks was to make money because a part of facial coverings was produced at state-owned plants. Taxi drivers in Moscow still warn passengers to stay away from the vaccine so as not to get microchipped by Bill Gates. People hear rumors from their co-workers and neighbors about somebody dying after vaccination and believe them. Russians are used to officials prioritizing politics over the well-being of citizens and tend to trust somebody they know rather than authorities or state-owned TV channels. The government only contributes to these sentiments. For example, Vladimir Putin got his first shot in March, several months after the start of mass inoculation, and he refused to disclose which vaccine he received.
Zarema, a resident of Gudermes, a town in the Chechen Republic, told me that when local authorities said that they got vaccinated, there were rumors that they didn’t trust the shots, either, and instead received injections of vitamins. Zarema told me that from the beginning of the pandemic, she promised herself that she would get a shot only if the government gave her no choice. Now she is reaching that point. “My husband got vaccinated because he was required to by his employer, and I am planning to get a jab as I am concerned that otherwise my child would not be allowed to return to school,” she says.
Tatyana Zimenko, a lecturer at a Moscow university, has been ordered recently by her employer to get inoculated. “It irritates me, especially in light of the fact that authorities do not do enough to contain the spread of the virus,” she says. “Vaccination affects my body, and I want it to be my choice, like abortion or euthanasia.”
Last year the same concerns about rushed COVID vaccination were expressed by many health care workers, who were the first in line to get inoculated. When U.S. officials announced plans to have a vaccine by the end of 2020, epidemiologist Alexandra Feathers, for example, wrote that she was afraid that producers wouldn`t have enough time to make sure that the vaccine is safe and effective. She made a point that she will get vaccinated only if she sees for herself data about clinical trials. Americans have received this data—but Russians are still waiting for more information about vaccine trials.
Some of the recent Moscow steps raised questions about discrimination against nonvaccinated people. From June 28, restaurants and bars will serve guests only with proof of vaccination or immunity. There is a risk that excessive restrictions might cause a pushback. Some Russians are already looking for ways to circumvent the requirements: They are buying fake vaccination certificates.
Of course, it is impossible to eliminate vaccine hesitancy completely. For example, a recent CBS News/YouGov poll revealed that 20 percent of Americans don’t want to get shots. The main reasons are that they feel vaccines are too untested, they have concerns about side effects, and they distrust the government. Authorities are trying to encourage people to get shots with incentives, like free doughnuts, baseball game tickets, $1.5 billion lottery prizes, and even guns. Many U.S. universities are requiring their staff and students to get vaccinated. A few major employers, including Morgan Stanley, introduced the mandate. However, still in the U.S., it is more “carrot” than “stick” approach when it comes to promoting vaccination.
Russian regions also started to give away cars and apartments in lotteries to vaccinated citizens. But it would be more productive for the Russian government to focus on better informing people on vaccines and their side effects. Instead, Russian TV channels spend too much time criticizing Western COVID shots. In March, the U.S. accused Russian intelligence agencies of engaging in a disinformation campaign: The U.S. officials believe that Russia is behind several English-language websites that focus on alleged side effects of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. (The Kremlin has denied the allegations.)
If the Russian government becomes more transparent about COVID data and more consistent while introducing anti-COVID restrictions, it might help to fight vaccine hesitancy. Otherwise, mandates might only contribute to the impression that the government is hiding something and citizens will end up cheating, which won’t help anybody.