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Commentary: Russians don't want their COVID vaccine

Commentary: Russians don't want their COVID vaccine

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Before thousands descended on St. Petersburg for Russia’s annual economic forum this month, the local governor boasted to radio listeners that no one had held a similar-scale event since the pandemic struck. A few days later, President Vladimir Putin told the audience that his country was in a better virus position than most and would quickly open to vaccine tourists.

The triumphalism proved premature. Russia has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks, with numbers at the highest in months and the added threat of troublesome new variants. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin declared an extended holiday to curb what he called an “explosive” growth in infections, and on Wednesday went further, ordering the city’s service-sector and municipal employees to get vaccinated. The Kremlin has said for months that there are no plans for compulsory jabs.

The problem is not the country’s vaccines, which have been available since late last year. Rather, it’s the devastatingly slow pace of inoculation, undermined by a toxic mix of complacency and chronic distrust in authority.

Russia has been hit hard by the pandemic. It revised its 2020 COVID-19 death toll higher by nearly 40% earlier this month. New cases, which have remained at more than 7,000 a day since late September, surged to near 13,400 on Wednesday. Moscow and the surrounding region accounted for more than half of the total.

Yet only 10% of Russians have been fully vaccinated.

Ultimately, the Kremlin can silence political opponents, but it can’t quash popular discontent or rapidly fix the distrust that keeps people from inoculation centers. That will have economic as well as political consequences for a country that, while it’s done better than many during the pandemic, is grappling with rising food prices and contracting real disposable incomes.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues.

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