Russia has reported a record number of Covid deaths for four of the past six days, as the country experiences a devastating fourth wave caused by the Delta variant and a low vaccination rate of under 30% of the adult population.
On Monday, 883 deaths and 25,781 new coronavirus cases were reported, taking the official death toll to 210,000. Calculations based on publicly available mortality data suggest that the “excess death” toll between the start of the pandemic and July this year is nearly 600,000.
The pandemic has reached Russia’s leadership. Last month, Vladimir Putin was forced to go into self-isolation after “several dozen people” in the president’s inner circle tested positive.
“The recent developments are very concerning,” said Vasiliy Vlasov, an epidemiologist at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “Even though many people have already been sick and the country should have developed some immunity, deaths are on the rise again. “This was expected as there have been practically no restrictions and a very sluggish vaccination rate,” Vlasov added.
Russia, which was the first country to create a coronavirus vaccine, has struggled to vaccinate its population. Only 29% of the adult population have received two shots of one of the three Russian vaccines being used. Vaccines made abroad are not being distributed.
Officials have said the vast majority of people in hospital are unvaccinated, and Putin has repeatedly urged Russians to get the jab. However, independent polls show that many Russians are sceptical of the Russian-made vaccines. Critics have principally blamed the low uptake on a botched vaccine rollout and mixed messages the authorities have been sending about the outbreak.
In addition, coronavirus antibody tests are popular in Russia and some observers suggest this contributes to the low vaccination numbers. Western health experts say the antibody tests are unreliable either for diagnosing Covid or assessing immunity to it. The antibodies that these tests look for can only serve as evidence of a past infection. Scientists say it’s still unclear what level of antibodies indicates that a person has protection from the virus and for how long.
“It’s been a very busy few weeks. Hospitalisations are rising quickly again,” said a surgeon at Moscow’s Clinical Hospital Number 50 who has been treating Covid-19 patients from the start of the pandemic and did not want to give his full name.
The deputy prime minister, Tatiana Golikova, who manages the national Covid-19 response, said last week that a difficult period was ahead. “We have a rise in morbidity and I want to ask you to be careful,” Golikova said.
Despite the stark figures for deaths and infections, authorities have been reluctant to introduce nationwide restrictions that could hurt the economy. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs remain open, though some regions have announced they will reimpose rules requiring people to show vaccination certificates to get into some venues.
Moscow briefly tried during the summer to require proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test for indoor customers at restaurants and bars, but abandoned the programme after business owners complained of reduced revenues.
The Kremlin last week pressed regions to take steps to slow the spread of coronavirus but rejected reports that lockdowns were being considered.
Associated Press contributed to this report