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Russia’s vaccine curse

The Sputnik V vaccine was an incredible achievement for Russian science. The measure of success however, will depend on the ability to vaccinate a majority of the Russian population in order to reach herd immunity.

July 14, 2021 - Joshua Kroeker - Articles and Commentary

The vaccination of the healthcare workers in Moscow. Photo: Official Website of the Government of Moscow

For nearly a decade now Russia has been suffering under what is known as the ‘resource curse’. Whilst the country possesses an abundance of natural resources, such as gas and oil, it continues to suffer from low economic growth, a failing (if not failed by now) democratic system, and various development issues. Nevertheless, last year saw Russia attempt to diversify its economy with something new: Sputnik V. Named after the first satellite to ever orbit the earth, Russia’s vaccine against COVID-19 represented a breakthrough for the country and a real propaganda victory. Since Sputnik V was the first vaccine developed for the virus, Russia was vaccinating its citizens months before other countries. This is even true in comparison to the West, which had yet to approve their own vaccines. Despite this, Russia’s success in fighting COVID-19 has only been nominal. At the time of writing, less than ten per cent of Russia’s population has received the vaccine, whilst countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, America and Canada are approaching the 70 per cent mark and thus herd immunity. So, the question remains: what went wrong with Sputnik?

Sputnik V was an incredible achievement for Russian scientists. Only six months into the pandemic, the country had not only registered but approved the vaccine. Germany, for example, only began its first jabs in late December of that year. Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the vaccine’s success on live TV after claiming that his daughter had been one of the first to receive it and was feeling well afterwards. By August 2020, Russians were being vaccinated and one month later the vaccine had been shipped to all corners of the world. This includes countries such as Mexico, India and Brazil. Much of the western world, however, criticised Sputnik, claiming that it was unsafe. This criticism focused on concerns that the Russian authorities did not follow the standard testing procedures laid out by the World Health Organisation. In the midst of the pandemic, Russia skipped the third and largest phase of trials and moved directly to administering the vaccine. Much of the western media, politicians, and even this author, outwardly condemned Russia and Sputnik V as a result.

After the hype surrounding Sputnik V subsided and the West started vaccinating its citizens, criticism of Russia’s vaccine all but vanished. Independent and western researchers have subsequently shown that the Russian vaccine is greatly effective. Western media has also jumped on the bandwagon, with international sites such as the BBC arguing that Sputnik V’s effectiveness was similar to BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna. The media group even argued that its safety levels far exceeded Oxford/AstraZeneca. EU politicians are in the process of making a deal with the Russian government to import the vaccine to the European Union this year. It now appears that the first Sputnik V jabs in the EU should be administered by September. If Sputnik V, despite earlier concerns, is now being hailed the world over as both effective and safe, then why are Russians not taking the vaccine?

Unlike their counterparts in the West, the Russian authorities are having great difficulties vaccinating the population. Russian cities have been flooded with vaccine centres; shopping malls, stadiums, and even the famous GUM department store on Moscow’s Red Square now offer the vaccine. Yet there are no lines of people waiting for their shot and no race to book appointments online. Overall, there is little interest amongst Russians to be vaccinated. Putin and the Russian government are now pleading with the population to get the vaccine. As the rate of those having been jabbed (once, not twice) hovers below the ten per cent mark, it seems that there is a systemic problem in Russia.

The issue appears to be twofold and the first problem is more tangible. Quite simply, there is no practical reason for Russians to be vaccinated. Russia has not seen any sort of ‘lockdown’ since the first wave in the spring of 2020 (this author resided in St. Petersburg at the time). Since last summer bars, cafés, stores, clubs, restaurants, stadiums and everything else have been open to the masses. There have been little to no restrictions for those without the vaccine. In Germany, for example, where the willingness to roll up one’s sleeve and be jabbed is much higher, those with the vaccine are rewarded: they can go to concerts, sit in bars and travel outside the country without needing tests or weeks of quarantine upon return. Russia, in comparison, has returned to its pre-pandemic way of life. As a result, beyond an intrinsic wish to be vaccinated, there is no need for the average Russian to bother him or herself with a sore arm.

The second reason for Russia’s failure to vaccinate en masse is much more complex. A legacy from the Soviet era, mistrust of the government remains deep within the fabric of Russian society. Many Russians may cheer on their president on the world stage. However, when it comes to government policy penetrating their personal sphere (and their bodies), they remain hesitant. This is compounded by undemocratic trends in the country. With only one vaccine in Russia being used and a lack of discourse within Russian society about the effectiveness, safety, and risks of Sputnik V, trust has not been built between the people and the government. In a regime where dissenting opinions have been severely punished in recent years, few in Russia have spoken outwardly against the vaccine or the rush in 2020 to be the first country to produce one. Most Russians mistrust the government and without a large-scale societal discussion weighing up the pros and cons of the life-changing vaccine, many are simply ignoring its existence and living their normal lives. This is especially true among the young, educated, liberal Russian youth. Without practical reasons for getting the vaccine and a basic level of trust amongst Russians for their government, the country will be unable to reach vaccine levels similar to those in the West. As a result, Russia will remain far below the level of herd immunity required to save lives.

Moscow could, however, implement a series of policies that would improve society’s willingness to get the vaccine. First of all, the authorities need to build trust amongst the population. An open discussion and information campaign involving media, social networks and the healthcare system could serve as a first step. Secondly, it is in the government’s interests to explore the possibility of establishing benefits for vaccinated citizens. This could include restricting sporting events and concerts to those with the vaccine, better possibilities for travelling within and outside the country, and privileges relating to freedom of assembly. The Russian government must also make the population aware that travel to many countries, including those in Europe and North America, will only be possible with the vaccine in the future. Thirdly, pilot projects that pay young people to get the vaccine now exist in several US states. Creating a voucher system that would give vaccinated citizens a few thousand rubles each would not only serve as a successful propaganda campaign but would also help kick-start a stagnating economy. In a country with low wages and even lower pensions, where a significant percentage of the population lives below the poverty line, money can go a long way to help. With more people taking up the offer of a vaccine, the burden and cost on the health care system also will ease off. At the very least, this would be an investment in the future of Russia and Russian businesses. Having the vaccine must become a norm within the country, not an exception. Without creative solutions to serious problems, Russia will continue to lag behind the West in vaccinations and suffer the many consequence that stem from this problem.

In 2020, Russia was the first country to take significant steps against the COVID-19 pandemic. With much of the controversy and geopolitics surrounding Sputnik V now over, it is clear that Russia is armed with a safe, effective, and world-class vaccine. Yet Russia’s failures in administering the vaccine amongst broad sections of its population are still notable. If Russia really wants to return to ‘normality’, it will need to catch up with other states as quickly as possible. The propaganda successes of Sputnik V will only truly be successes if the Russians themselves are willing to take the vaccine. Once again, Russia is suffering not as a result of its commodities (in this case biotechnology and not natural resources) but rather due to the policies of its government. Russia has shown that it is once again in the position to be a world leader in scientific development. For that to happen, Russia will first need to overcome the vaccine curse that it itself has created.

This article is published as part of a project to promote independent digital media in Central and Eastern Europe funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and coordinated by Notes from Poland.

Joshua Kroeker is a historian and political scientist, holding degrees from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Heidelberg University in Germany and St Petersburg State University, Russia. He is currently undertaking his doctoral study at Heidelberg University. He specialises in modern Russian and Ukrainian history and politics and is Editor-in-Chief of the Energy Politics Journal ENERPO based at the European University at St. Petersburg, Russia.

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