NEW DELHI: The coronavirus pandemic could not have come at a worse time for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Just when he appeared all set to extend his two-decade long iron-grip over the nation through a constitutional referendum, the coronavirus has forced him to postpone it.
Analysts say it is a late admission by the Kremlin that the virus has taken a serious turn in the country. The view is that Putin has been underplaying the spread of the coronavirus even as the numbers testing positive showed rapid increases last month. Some early steps to contain the virus were taken, notably the closure of the 4,000-km long land border with China in late January. But there’s a perception that more could have been done.
There have also been whispers about the Russian state covering-up reports about people falling ill with pneumonia like symptoms as early as January. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin had cast doubts on the number of those tested positive, hinting that the authorities may have been covering up the facts on the ground. Clearly, they were under-testing and therefore under-estimating the spread of the infection until it exploded in their face.
On Tuesday, Russia recorded its sharpest spike in the number of coronavirus positive cases with 1,154 persons found infected. That pushed up the total number of positive cases to 7,497, with 58 deaths so far. Ironically, Moscow where Putin has a larger than life presence is the epicentre of the pandemic. Add to that, Putin himself has had to self-isolate after shaking hands with a doctor who tested positive for the coronavirus. It’s a far cry from the images of the president riding a horse bare-chested or showing off his judo skills (he’s a black belt).
For the record, it’s not clear if Putin has tested positive. His office said he gets tested as and when the doctor says it is necessary. State television has even shown him working in the Kremlin and meeting key officials, which raised quite a few eyebrows as it conflicts with reports about his self-isolation. Is the president violating quarantine norms?
That aside, there are signs Putin is taking charge of the situation. He held a video conference with epidemiologists and virologists on Tuesday where he warned that “we have not seen the peak of the epidemic yet.” Moscow’s 12 million residents are under quarantine that will continue until May 1. Those found violating the quarantine will have to pay stiff fines. Other regions too are under stay-at-home orders. It’s not clear why he has not declared an emergency when the same was done during floods and wildfires. The president has preferred to phrase it differently, declaring it as “paid holiday”, so people can enjoy till the end of April.
Will the pandemic allow Russia to go ahead with its planned 75th-anniversary celebrations of Victory Day on May 9 at the Red Square? With world leaders invited including Narendra Modi, one will have to wait and see if the coronavirus plays spoilsport.