As the widespread of coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to threaten the global community, Russia offers a curious case study given the fact that a possible large scale impact of COVID-19 may have on its demography which has been one of the most extreme aspects of its domestic crisis. The pandemic impact of the COVID-19 has also posed a challenge to the preparedness of Russia’s healthcare sector and medicinal science given the fact that Russia is now one of the pioneering countries working to find the COVID-19 vaccine. It is also important to evaluate the impact of a longer quarantine of human resources on Russian economy. Russia today largely focuses on reviving its global image through public diplomacy, its role therefore in tackling the pandemic COVID-19 along with other countries needs due attention.
As the widespread of coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to threaten the global community, countries across the world have undertaken stringent measures to contain the spread of infections. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic given the serious impact of the virus worldwide, which has claimed nearly 45,692 lives and infected around 900,306 as on 03 April 2020[i]. Nationwide lockdowns, self-isolation and social distancing have emerged as critical tools to address the current phase of this global crisis, to flatten that curve and to check community transmissions. These measures are set to fracture the day to day activities in the administration of government and private institutions, economy and the civil society at large.
Russia in this regard offers a curious case study given the fact that a possible large scale impact of COVID-19 may have on its demography which has been one of the most extreme aspects of its domestic crisis. The pandemic impact of the COVID-19 has also posed a challenge to the preparedness of Russia’s healthcare sector and medicinal science given the fact that Russia is now one of the pioneering countries working to find the COVID-19 vaccine. It is also important to evaluate the impact of a longer quarantine of human resources on Russian economy. Russia today largely focuses on reviving its global image through public diplomacy, its role therefore in tackling the pandemic COVID-19 along with other countries needs due attention.
Russia’s Measures against COVID-19
As on 03 April 2020, there have been 3,548 cases of coronavirus infections reported in Russia so far and 30 deaths[ii] since the outbreak of the pandemic disease in Russia. Several regions have been impacted by the virus including Moscow, which has seen the largest impact so far. However, despite Russia sharing border with China which is the epicentre of the virus infection, Russia has claimed to have contained the spread and large-scale impact of COVID-19 so far.
To prevent the country from further escalation of the pandemic threat, Russia has imposed stringent measures by declaring high alert and imposed mandatory self-quarantine for 14 days and workplace health check-ups. Russia had earlier announced an official holiday from 28 March to 05 April 2020 with pay while vital services, including medical facilities, pharmacies, grocery stores, banking and financial accounting organisations, transportation as well as authorities of all levels continue to work. President Putin announced an extension of the nationwide ‘non-working week’ until April 30 after Russia experienced a sharp increase of confirmed new COVID-19 cases which was 771 on 02 April 2020.[iii] The Russian government has launched an internet hotline to keep the people abreast with the coronavirus situation.[iv] Russia suspended international travel into and out of Russia except for charter flights for bringing returnees back from trips abroad. Russia’s federal government is also building a new hospital on Moscow’s outskirts.
Given the fact that Moscow is one of the densely populated regions in Russia, about two-thirds of the infected by the COVID-19 are from Moscow. Authorities have called on Moscow residents over age 65 to self-isolate at home. With regards to testing, the swabs were initially shipped to Siberia for analysis at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR. The Moscow Anti-Plague Centre and 15 regional Russia’s Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor) are authorised to test for COVID-19.[v] Russia has also ramped up detection and hospital bed capacity as a precautionary measure, should there be a spike in number of cases.
Russia’s Anti-Plague Research Institute is also said to have created a reserve of 700,000 test kits that it will regularly replenish. Russia’s Federal Coronavirus Coordination Council was established on 16 March 2020 to control the spread of the COVID-19 infection and to coordinate the activities of the federal, regional and municipal bodies of power and other agencies and organisations.[vi] The Coordination Council announced to allot 1.4 billion roubles ($17.7 million) to VECTOR, the anti-plague facility, and several Rospotrebnadzor labs to spur vaccine and drug development.[vii]According to the Head of the Ministry of Healthcare Mikhail Murashko, “Russia as of now has 55,000 beds, but this number can be doubled, including protective equipment for population and medical staff. All hospitals are listed; beds are calculated, with their number doubled if needed by federal and regional healthcare facilities.”[viii]
Possible Impact of COVID-19 on Russia’s Demographic Trends
Russia for long has struggled with demographic turbulence as it has experienced a downward spiral due to high mortality rates. Despite an increase in the fertility rate between 2005 and 2018, the government's statistics agency, Rosstat, released figures in December 2019 showing a natural population decline of 259,600 in the first 10 months of 2019.[ix] The demographic crisis is caused by a significant reduction in the number of births, abortion, alcoholism, drug addiction etc. Russia's population is projected to decline precipitously in the next few decades; a possible large-scale impact of COVID-19 on the population would only fast forward the clock, thus further raising concerns. An impact on the demography due to COVID-19 similar to that of the European countries as seen in the case of Italy is indeed a worrisome factor for Russia.
A loss of human resources for Russia is set to undermine it economic growth performance including in sectors like technology and the military. An impact on the demography would also lead to an alteration in the demographic composition, as migrants from countries such as China, Caucasus and Central Asia are likely to migrate to Russia in greater numbers to make up for the population loss. From a geopolitical perspective, a declining population will also compromise Russia's ability to project its military power and political influence and competing for influence at the global level alongside great power competitors such as China and the United States.[x]
Preparedness of Russia’s Health Care System
The impact of the COVID-19 across the globe has exposed the vulnerabilities of the healthcare system even in the most advanced countries such as the United States, which is now the highly impacted nation from the pandemic. While Russia claims to have kept the novel coronavirus at bay, it is important to investigate the large scale preparedness of its existing health care system.
While Russia’s healthcare system looks prepared to deal with the pandemic, there is however criticism of the existing healthcare system which since the Soviet Union collapse has seen an impact in its functioning as budget allocation for healthcare has dropped immensely.[xi] It is said that there is a growing health crisis that has emerged in Russia that the term ‘disappearing population’ has been applied due to a high death rate, low birth rate, and low life expectancy among its people. These factors continue to worsen due to inefficiency and a lack of resources throughout the healthcare system. Russia has however undertaken measures to revive its healthcare system with the establishment of large number of hospitals and a huge army of medical doctors. However, due to a continued lack of funds, medical and technical equipment and supplies, and the economic crisis have further exacerbated due to limited government contributions to the system.[xii]
Towards that end, a great deal of further measures is required to disentangle the effects of earlier policies, current reforms especially under the critical situation i.e., the growing pandemic COVID-19 threat, health care system requires due attention as it has emerged as a critical factor for many countries including Russia.
Impact of COVID-19 on Russia’s Economy
In his national address on 24 March 2020, President Vladimir Putin had stated that the situation with the coronavirus spread is severe globally, adding that it puts at threat all economies around the world. “We see how severe the situation with the coronavirus pandemic is globally as the number of infected continues growing in many countries, and the whole international economy is exposed,” he said.[xiii]
Countries across the globe are concerned about the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is said to possibly lead to a Great Depression like situation in coming days. As for Russia, the country has already been dealing with economic crisis since the imposition of sanctions by the West post-Ukraine crisis in 2014. Additionally, the Saudi Arabia Russia oil price war in January resulted in collapse of oil prices and continues to worsen amid the COVID-19 threat. This is predicted to impact Russian economy as the country’s main source of economic revenue is through energy market. However, some argue that the sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 has positioned the country to ride out the corona virus impact on the economy and bounce right back due to economic isolation for almost six years, adequate financial reserves, self-sufficiency in food grains etc. While it is too early to predict the impact of the outbreak of the pandemic disease on the economy, Russia’s reserves, built up over the sanctions period, are set to play a key role during the recovery process.[xiv]
While announcing measures aimed to provide financial support young families, workers, and small business owners during the national lockdown, President Putin had stated that the support would be financed, in whole or in part by increasing taxes on dividend and interest payments that Russian companies make to their owners' of offshore bank accounts. This measure is known as de-offshorisation which means taxing the profit of foreign companies and the incomes of foreigners. In other words, it means controlling foreign companies that prevents them from having an advantage over domestic enterprises. This will be achieved by introducing taxes that are levied heavily on the foreign company and are easy on domestic enterprises. This measure is set to help Russia as it prevents entrepreneurs from off shoring their profits thereby causing each penny to be accountable to tax and thus preventing the most common form of tax evasion. It will also increase state revenue and at the same time the government does not become despotic in levying more tax from its own population. Putin also said he would tax interest on Russian bank deposits and bonds exceeding 1 million rubles ($12,500) including individuals with large bank deposits or bond holdings would be taxed 13 percent on the interest they earned. [xv]
A measure of this nature especially de-offshorisation is not a new approach by President Putin. Post the imposition of sanctions by the West on Russia in 2014, President Putin introduced the 3D formula as economic revival programmes which called for de-offshorisation, de-dollarisation and diversification. While these measures are said to have assisted in stabilising Russian economy to some extent, it is debatable whether it is a reward or a risk for president Putin given the current situation. One takeaway from the measures is that the idea seems to show that Russia for now does not need to spend the money from the reserves. Russia’s foreign currency reserves currently stands at $562.3 billion.[xvi]
Russia’s Role in Humanitarian Aid
Russia, China and Cuba are the few countries that have sent medical assistance to other countries in combating the increasing cases of infections from COVID-19 pandemic. ’Russia’s recent focus on public diplomacy and humanitarian gesture is set to reshape its global image especially among long term Western allies such as Italy. Russia sent coronavirus equipment package that included ventilators, disinfectants, masks, protective equipment and testing kits to Italy that has been the worst hit country by COVID-19. The supplies were transported in military planes with military medics among the team of specialists that landed at a military air base near Rome.[xvii]Additionally, the Russian Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare has delivered over 100,000 COVID-19 test kits to 13 states that include member states of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, Iran, Mongolia and North Korea.[xviii] Russia has also sent military cargo plane with masks and other COVID-19 medical aid to help the US combat the pandemic threat.[xix] While these humanitarian gestures by Russia are seen with scepticism, it is however interesting to note that the use of public diplomacy has made its way as an important foreign policy tool for Russia.
While Russia contends with the mounting COVID-19 threat, it is also in the race to find a vaccine. According to Sergey Alkhovsky, a virologist who studies emerging and zoonotic viral infections at the Russian Ministry of Health’s D.I. Ivanovsky Institute of Virology has stated that Russia in the past has developed vaccines against tick-borne encephalitis, polio, smallpox, influenza, and other infections. Groups from scientific institutions at Rospotrebnadzor, the Ministry of Health, and the Federal Biomedical Agency have declared that they will be conducting early vaccine trials in the near future and the development of anti-corona virus drugs[xx] will be a breakthrough contribution by Russia.
Russia-China Relations during the Time of Crisis
In late December 2019, Chinese authorities notified the WHO about the outbreak of a previously unknown pneumonia in the city of Wuhan, central China.[xxi]
This is a crucial period for Russia-China bilateral relations given the rising threat of COVID-19. The Russian-Chinese border was closed at the end of January with all 16 legal crossings e closed with only one open for evacuation of Russians from China. Railway traffic from China was stopped, and all charter flights were cancelled. Only a few airlines remained in operation, arriving at one terminal in Moscow with medical supervision of all arrivals and recording of their residence and contacts. In fact, the first two cases in Russia were detected on 31 January were in two Chinese tourists.[xxii]
Russia has been particularly vigilant in the Far East region given the large presence and movement of Chinese and labour migration. Russia has imposed restrictions on all Chinese citizens on tourism, study, or work visas. This has also led to shortage of Chinese labour force in construction sites etc. in the Far East. It is said that the Far East Investment Promotion and Export Support Agency (ANO IPA) is considering the possibility of finding Indian skilled and unskilled labour force at the construction sites of the Far Eastern Federal District.[xxiii] Given the active presence of Chinese labour force, they are seen as a key asset in the development and investment of the Far East which cannot be ignored. .
The Road Ahead
The COVID-19 threat is an opportune time for Russia to revive its global image through public diplomacy and humanitarian aid and not just be seen as an assertive military power.
This is also a crucial and testing time for President Putin who had announced constitutional changes to be put to a nationwide vote in April to vote for a new amendment that would allow him to run again for President. The vote has now been postponed. The COVID-19 will be a test for Putin as a lot depends on how effectively he is able to contain the spread in Russia alongside improving the healthcare system which will influence the voting pattern for constitutional change.
*Dr. Chandra Rekha, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
[i] Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Situation Dashboard, World Health Organization, 30 March 2020, https://experience.arcgis.com/experience/685d0ace521648f8a5beeeee1b9125cd
[ii]Coronavirus in Russia: The Latest News | April 3, Moscow Times, 03 April 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/04/03/coronavirus-in-russia-the-latest-news-april-3-a69117
[iii] Coronavirus in Russia: The Latest News | April 3, Moscow Times, 03 April 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/04/03/coronavirus-in-russia-the-latest-news-april-3-a69117
[iv]Putin calls on Russians 'to stay home' due to coronavirus, TASS, 25 March 2020.https://tass.com/society/1135339?fbclid=IwAR3D7ik0h94kb0IgR4MK2ZBW4xoY9eaEg4LsOYvZAjRgSFJv_Bnok68Lel4
[v]Richard Stone, The new coronavirus is finally slamming Russia. Is the country ready?, Science Mag, 26 March 2020, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/new-coronavirus-finally-slamming-russia-country-ready
[vi] First meeting of the Government Coordination Council to control the incidence of coronavirus infection in Russia, Government House, The Russian Government, 16 March 2020. http://government.ru/en/news/39164/
[ix]LilyaPalveleva and Robert Coalson, Echoes Of War And Collapse: Russia's Demographic Decline As Small 1990s Generation Comes Of Age, RadioFreeEuropeRadioLiberty, 12 January 2020. https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-demographic-data-dip-as-small-1990s-generation-comes-of-age/30373049.html, Accessed on?
[x]Russia Takes on Its Demographic Decline, Stratfor, 27 March 2019. https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/russia-takes-its-demographic-decline, Accessed on?
[xii]Christine Danton, The Health Crisis in Russia, TOPICAL RESEARCH DIGEST: HUMAN RIGHTS IN RUSSIA AND THE FORMER SOVIET REPUBLICS, Pg.42. https://www.du.edu/korbel/hrhw/researchdigest/russia/health.pdf
[xiii]Coronavirus in Russia: The Latest News | April 3, Moscow Times, 03 April 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/04/03/coronavirus-in-russia-the-latest-news-april-3-a69117
[xiv]Andrew E Kramer, Thanks to Sanctions, Russia Is Cushioned From Virus’s Economic Shocks, New York Times, 20 March 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/world/europe/russia-coronavirus-covid-19.html
[xv]Todd Prince, Putin's Pretext? COVID-19 Crisis Tapped To Tax Rich Russians' Offshore Wealth, RadioFreeEuropeRadioLiberty, 27 March 2020. https://www.rferl.org/a/putin-s-pretext-covid-19-crisis-tapped-to-tax-rich-russians-offshore-wealth/30513483.html
[xvi] Elvis Picardo, 10 Countries with the Biggest Forex Reserves, Ivestopedia, 07 March 2020, https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/033115/10-countries-biggest-forex-reserves.asp
Accessed March 10, 2020.
[xvii]Isabel Toguh, From Russia With Love? Putin’s Medical Supplies Gift To Coronavirus-Hit Italy Raises Questions, Forbes, 26 March 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/isabeltogoh/2020/03/26/from-russia-with-love-putins-medical-supplies-gift-to-coronavirus-hit-italy-raises-questions/
[xix] Russian Military Plane with masks and other COVID-19 medical aid depart for US, Russia Today, 01 April 2020. https://www.rt.com/russia/484639-russian-coronavirus-aid-usa/
[xxi] Coronavirus in Russia: The Latest News | April 3, Moscow Times, 03 April 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/04/03/coronavirus-in-russia-the-latest-news-april-3-a69117
[xxii]Richard Stone, The new coronavirus is finally slamming Russia. Is the country ready?, Science Mag, 26 March 2020, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/new-coronavirus-finally-slamming-russia-country-ready
[xxiii]Vinay Shukla, Chinese Workers Could Be Replaced With Indians On Construction Sites In Russia’s Far East Federal District, Disha Russian-Indian Friendship Society, 26 February 2020https://dishamoscow.com/chinese-workers-could-be-replaced-with-indians-on-construction-sites-in-russias-far-east-federal-district/?fbclid=IwAR3sQREszcgLkyaLioEwXGlZSNeG2QC8X13Wzf9A9OyIWmY_Cfe1uXlkpZI