Faced with stubbornly low vaccination rates, Moscow authorities announced just over a week ago that at least 60% of staff in service industries — spanning everything from catering to housing and transport — must get vaccinated with at least one shot by July 15.
“Vaccination remains voluntary,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
But while Peskov says someone can refuse a vaccine, they just might lose their livelihood for doing so.
“If a Muscovite works in the service sector and he has to get a vaccine but he has made a decision not to get vaccinated, he simply has to stop working in the service sector. And if he wants to, he will look for a job in another place that is not connected with those areas where the mandatory presence of vaccinations is imputed,” he said.
Russian officials have been giving regular updates on television and in briefings on the rapidly worsening situation across the country. Worrying images have started popping up again on Russian social media sites illustrating the increasing burden of coronavirus across the country. Both Moscow and St. Petersburg reported record high daily death tolls Monday, according to Russia’s anti-coronavirus crisis center.
Patients have been seen lying in hospital corridors in St. Petersburg — which is currently playing host to a number of Euro 2020 soccer matches — as an overburdened medical system battles an increasing number of infections. Images of queues of ambulances waiting outside hospitals to admit patients are reappearing.
Mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin warned Monday that the burden was also growing on hospitals in the capital. “Over the past week, we have broken new records for the number of hospitalizations, people in intensive care, and the number of deaths from coronavirus,” he said, according to state media agency RIA Novosti.
Despite being the first country in the world to approve a coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, for use in August 2020, Russia has since lagged behind much of the world in vaccination rates.
As of Monday, 23 million people in Russia — a country of around 146 million — had been vaccinated with at least one dose, the health minister told state media. Some 16.7 million people have had both shots, according to figures released by the government last week. That’s around 11% of the population. Around 46% of people in the US have been fully vaccinated. In the UK, it’s about 48%.
Even though the pandemic has hit Russia hard, the idea of being forced into vaccination is unpopular.
While the Russian government insists it has not introduced a blanket mandatory vaccination scheme, testimony from ordinary workers — who did not want their full names to be used — suggests a huge sense of pressure and urgency to get vaccinated across the board.
Among the Muscovites lining up outside a vaccination center opposite Gorky Park in the blistering June heat were people working in hospitality, construction and business, as well as students. The center’s receptionist told Asia Despatch that in the last few days people had been lining up between 8 a.m. right through to closing time at 10 p.m.
“I have to get vaccinated because of my work, because I work in the catering industry,” said 29-year-old bartender Dmitry, who was waiting for his first shot.
“But I know that I would have to do this one way or another. Sooner or later they will press everyone to the point that we will all have to do it,” he told Asia Despatch, without giving his full name.
Also waiting in line was Yegor, an IT specialist. Despite not having a client-facing role, he said he had no choice about taking the vaccine.
“My work made me,” he said, also declining to give his full name. “They told me at work that I need to [get vaccinated].”
“I actually think it’s bad that they did this. It’s supposed to be voluntary, while in fact it is ‘voluntary-compulsory,’” Yegor told Asia Despatch, referring to an ironic term harking back to the Soviet-era meaning people have freewill, but in reality have no choice but to comply with what authorities want.
“It is not right. Every person has to have a free choice whether or not to get vaccinated.”
Moscow authorities appear to have known the policy would face some resistance — they announced the new policy as Russians’ attention was drawn to a highly anticipated meeting between President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden.
Around 500 people protested in the Novopushkinsky square, in the center of Moscow, on Saturday, state-run media TASS reported. They were demanding the right to choose whether to be vaccinated, and to stop the dismissal of workers and immediately restore them in their jobs, according to independent monitoring site OVD-Info. They called for the removal of coronavirus restrictions in the catering industry “and any kind of Covid discrimination in society and business,” according OVD-Info.
62% of Russians don’t want a Sputnik shot
Alexandra Arkhipova, a social anthropologist and researcher at the university RANEPA in Moscow, told Asia Despatch there was a “crisis of people’s confidence in political and medical institutions.” Arkhipova has been studying trends of social media engagement and internet searches of Russian citizens and said that many believe there is no “clear and transparent information” about the vaccination process, so they are driven to look for ways to get around the system.
Russian media has been filled with reports of some people buying illegal counterfeit vaccination certificates to circumvent the measures.
Sellers offering fake certificates which Russians can use as “proof” of getting the vaccine are prevalent on Russia social media sites and encrypted messenger app Telegram. Prices vary depending on whether the buyer just wants a physical certificate or if they want their data uploaded to state databases and registers, Russian media reported.
“The constant feeling that officials are lying or forcing them to get vaccinated, hiding the truth about vaccines, makes people feel morally right to buy a fake vaccination certificate,” Arkhipova said.
A 31-year-old businesswoman from Moscow who wished to remain anonymous said she wanted to buy a fake certificate because she didn’t think enough was known generally about Covid-19 vaccines.
“In Moscow, it’s prohibited to go to restaurants [without a negative PCR test or a proof of vaccination]. I live alone and eat out all the time, all my meetings take place at restaurants. Doing a PCR test every time I want to have a cup of coffee is not an option,” she said.