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Voting in Vladivostok on July 1, 2020, during Russia’s plebiscite on constitutional amendments

The cost of stability New research suggests that Russian officials could have prevented 220,000 deaths by imposing a second lockdown and committing to more relief spending

Source: Meduza
Voting in Vladivostok on July 1, 2020, during Russia’s plebiscite on constitutional amendments
Voting in Vladivostok on July 1, 2020, during Russia’s plebiscite on constitutional amendments
Yuri Smityuk / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On July 19, the Liberal Mission Foundation published an assessment of how Russia has handled the coronavirus pandemic, analyzing the government’s actions and the public’s response. Most controversially, the report’s authors argue that Russia could have avoided roughly 220,000 deaths if officials imposed a second lockdown. Meduza reviews how researchers came to this alarming conclusion.

The Russian authorities’ initial response to the coronavirus was effective. In late March 2020, the government introduced restrictions that were tougher than in most other places around the world (including in Europe), according to research by the University of Oxford. Russia’s leadership appeared to have learned from China’s early experience with the pandemic, or perhaps Moscow simply acted aggressively because it hoped to tackle COVID-19 in time for a nationwide plebiscite on constitutional amendments that could extend Vladimir Putin’s presidency.

A strict lockdown in March and April 2020 kept excess deaths at roughly zero, as stay-at-home measures reduced mortality and balanced out the loss of life caused by COVID-19. In May and June, however, Russia started lifting these restrictions, which allowed the disease to spread deeply throughout the country. By July 2020, excess deaths reached 27 percent above the natural level.

Russia lifted its pandemic lockdown prematurely for several reasons: people resented imposed isolation and struggled with lost income, the state refused to bear the continued economic costs and compensate the public, and officials were committed to the constitutional plebiscite. 

As the government started rolling back pandemic restrictions, it also began manipulating the measures put in place to maintain public health (banning political protests but staging a nationwide vote, for example) and fiddling with Russia’s official morbidity and mortality statistics. This fed public distrust in the government’s pandemic handling and led more Russians to dismiss the threat of COVID-19 altogether, fostering the view that another lockdown was unnecessary. 

Russia’s 2020 plebiscite

Here’s how Russia’s constitutional plebiscite achieved 55 percent turnout before the final day of voting

Russia’s 2020 plebiscite

Here’s how Russia’s constitutional plebiscite achieved 55 percent turnout before the final day of voting

By early September 2020, Russia’s lockdown measures were lighter than in most of the world (including most of Europe). Despite the start of a second wave of COVID-19 infections, officials declined to impose another round of isolation requirements. Consequently, excess deaths jumped to 40 percent above the natural level in October and then climbed to 66 percent in December.

Researchers at the Liberal Mission Foundation concluded that Russian officials rejected a second lockdown for reasons both political and economic: public opinion about the restrictions was overwhelmingly negative, and Moscow didn’t want to burn its cash reserves on relief spending. The government decided instead to save its “safety cushion” for other problems, namely the possibility that the West might impose even more serious sanctions. As a result, Russia’s relief spending during the pandemic has been relatively low, even when compared to poorer nations. For example, Brazil’s per capita GDP is one and a half times lower than Russia’s, but the Brazilian government has sent two to three times more relief money to individuals and businesses.

Additionally, much of the money Russia allocated to relief programs never actually reached anyone, as intended recipients encountered bureaucratic obstacles and delays. “People got the impression that the government was more afraid of spending the allocated funds than leaving those who needed it most with nothing,” writes Oleg Buklemishev, the director of Moscow State University’s Economic Policy Research Center and one of the report’s authors.

Thanks to relatively few pandemic restrictions, Russia’s GDP decline (3.1 percent) was lower than in many other countries, though its economic recovery is also less dynamic. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that Russia’s economic growth rate will start to lag behind the global average by late 2021.

Russia has also paid for its relative economic stability with high excess mortality. According to the models presented in the Liberal Mission Foundation’s report, excess deaths between March 2020 and May 2021 (before Russia’s third wave of COVID-19) were 532,000 people — 26 percent above the natural level. Though other parts of the world like South America have recorded even higher excess mortality rates during the pandemic, Russia could have saved roughly 220,000 lives in this timespan if the authorities had kept excess deaths at 15 percent above normal (which the country managed to do until October 2020), argue the authors of the Liberal Mission Foundation’s report.

Finally, the researchers say Russian officials’ “conflicting signals and manipulative approach” also hindered vaccine uptake ahead of the third wave of the pandemic, contributing to COVID-19 deaths that were 14 percent higher in June 2021 than in June 2020.

Summary by Olga Korelina

Translation by Kevin Rothrock