Moscow, Russia—The number of passengers on Moscow’s subway has dropped by 80 percent since the city told residents to stay at home late last month. So would-be riders approaching many of the city’s 275 stations on Wednesday were shocked to find half-hour lines stretching out onto the street.
Rather than social distancing, the launch of the city’s Covid-19 permit system has resulted in crowding. Passengers crowded together in entrances and underground passageways as pairs of police officers scanned the QR codes that are now necessary for all trips by car or transport.
Meanwhile, ambulances were getting stuck in the giant traffic jams created by police checking drivers’ codes.
The well-known caricaturist Sergey Elkin quickly drew up a cartoon of Muscovites waiting in line to receive coronavirus particles from the hands of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.
“They need to spread people out, have an organizer oversee the line so there would be two meters between each person, not just stand one after another breathing down each other’s necks,” accountant Yelena Fomina told me. While there had only been about 10 people in line at her subway stop this morning, she complained that the police came in close contact with every person as they scanned the QR codes.
After the morning rush hour was over, Sobyanin declared that the “lines have been eliminated.” The city transportation department later promised to develop a method to check permits through passengers’ subway cards. Yet the disastrous start to the permit system was characteristic of Russia’s uneven response to the pandemic, and indeed its increasingly authoritarian system of governance as a whole. The measures it has adopted are far-reaching, yet often tragically misguided and too late.
The country may be able to avoid the spectacularly catastrophic spread seen in the United States, but some say it should be doing better since it has had the American, British, and Italian outbreaks to learn from. Friday brought another daily record of new infections, raising the official number of cases to 32,008, with 273 deaths. Given problems with the availability and efficacy of the Russian coronavirus test, the actual number is almost certainly far higher.
“We need real figures, real forecasts, a real understanding of the situation and an honest conversation with the people,” Darya Besedina, a liberal activist who was elected to Moscow’s city council amid widespread protests last year, told me. “There needs to be a high percentage of trust between people and the authorities to get through this kind of crisis. Communication is more important than batons and bans.”
Russia closed its land border with China back in January. But it was slower to react to the growing crisis elsewhere, introducing a mandatory two-week quarantine for travelers arriving from a handful of worst-hit countries in early March and then for travelers from the United States and other countries a week later. Moscow’s burgeoning network of facial recognition cameras helped find people who had left their apartments during quarantine or run away from the main hospital testing and treating coronavirus patients. (Now many more are taking them.)
It was already too late; the first coronavirus infections that appeared in Russia mostly traced back to people who had vacationed in Europe. Paradoxically, China has now closed its borders with Russia after being hit with a new wave of infections from its northern neighbor—60 on one Aeroflot flight to Shanghai alone.
Whereas US President Donald Trump’s lack of leadership has been conspicuously on display during daily press briefings, Vladimir Putin has largely hidden behind his loyal lieutenants. Forced to address the issue in mid-March, the Russian president first assured citizens that “everything’s under control.” But by the next week, the situation had become bad enough that he had to take some sort of action. Unwilling as always to be the bearer of bad news, he announced a week off of work in a televised speech, then left Sobyanin and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to do the dirty work of closing restaurants and parks.
Many nonetheless sneaked out to enjoy the first week of warm weather with a barbecue, reportedly infuriating the mayor. On March 30, Sobyanin declared a “self-isolation regime,” ordering Muscovites to leave the house only for food, medicine, work, or to take out a pet or the trash.
The majority tried to stay home as much as possible, and those who did go out started wearing masks more often. Yandex, Russia’s equivalent to Google, drew on user data to create a five-point “self-isolation index,” with zero representing normal activity and five representing completely empty streets. For the most part, it hovered in the low threes.
The seed had already been planted, however, and the number of infections continued to rise exponentially. When the Bolshoi Theater decided to check all of its employees for Covid-19 last week, 34 tested positive. Reports of overflowing hospitals abounded. Ambulances raced through the streets.
On Friday, Sobyanin announced the permit system, a move that activists have described as an illegal invasion of privacy that is ripe for abuse. “When we’re talking about the life and health of a huge number of people, we have no choice. Especially when we see that not everyone is following the limits we’ve set,” the mayor said.
Putin’s spokesman was more blunt: “Residents of Moscow didn’t show the required discipline.”
But Besedina and others have argued that it was not residents’ lack of discipline but rather the government’s lack of communication that was to blame. Putin’s statements painting Covid-19 as a foreign problem that Russia had “contained” hardly instilled a sense of urgency, and little public education work has been done.
Meanwhile, doctors who complained about Russia’s unpreparedness were threatened with disciplinary actions. A criminal case under a new law against fake news about the coronavirus was opened against a woman who wrote on social media that a hospital in Sestroretsk had released an infected person.
While protective shields have just begun to appear in a few stores and offices, hand sanitizer stations are still hard to find. Medical masks have been sold out for weeks at pharmacies around the city as medical staff complain of equipment deficits.
At the same time, the lockdown has begun to take a toll on families’ finances.
“If you tell people all day every day that the situation is under control and only elderly people with coexisting illnesses die, and at the same time don’t give them any economic support, then people aren’t going to stay home,” urban activist and former municipal deputy Maxim Katz wrote.
A recent survey found that 12 percent of Moscow workers had lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus measures and 32 percent were temporarily not working. Thirty-nine percent had seen their income fall significantly.
On the way from the store last week, I came across a crowd outside the local unemployment office. The city workers said they couldn’t let any more people in. The crowd refused to leave, shouting that they didn’t have money for food. The standoff ended only when workers agreed to take down everyone’s name to let them in the next day.
Moscow city hall has increased unemployment benefits, and on Wednesday it said it would allocate an additional 7 billion rubles ($95 million) to this end. But the situation will only get worse as the virus spreads, and often businesses stop paying wages without officially firing people.
On Tuesday, economists including Sergei Guriyev, the self-exiled former director of Moscow’s New Economic School, called on Russia to draw on its national welfare fund to issue monthly payments of 20,000 rubles ($275) to every citizen. Small businesses, he said, should receive the same amount for each employee to help pay wages and rent.
Fomina, the accountant, said she and her husband, a car salesman whose dealership is currently closed, are afraid of losing wages as the crisis continues. Their 6-year-old son’s kindergarten is also shut down.
“Some [employers] might force people to go on unpaid leave, they might just not say it,” she explained.
“In April they will pay salaries,” she added, “but it’s not clear how much.”