Omicron cases surge in Russia amid deep distrust of vaccine

Published : 13 Feb 2022 08:49 PM | Updated : 14 Feb 2022 03:53 PM

As Russia commands the world's attention with a military buildup around Ukraine, it faces a stubborn domestic challenge: the coronavirus.

On Friday Feb 11, the country reported a daily record of 200,000 new coronavirus cases, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant sweeps across the remote parts of the vast country.

Though deaths in Russia are off their November peak, the surge has served as a reminder of the vulnerability of Russia's vaccine-sceptic population.

Omicron, which has also driven case counts up to extraordinary levels in many other European countries, began spreading across Russia in the middle of January, quickly becoming dominant in Moscow and other urban centres. The country recorded more than 170,000 cases over the past week, or 122 cases per 100,000 people, according to the Centre for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

The number of deaths, however, has remained steady, hovering at about 650 per day. That number is about half of what it was during its peak in November.

Moscow's mayor, Mr Sergei Sobyanin, said on Friday that the city had passed the peak of the Omicron wave, but that the situation remained difficult in other cities, including Russia's second-largest, St Petersburg.

Russia has been hit hard by the pandemic. The total number of deaths has exceeded 338,000, according to the official government tally.

Some statisticians, however, point to the number of excess deaths as the more reliable measure. By that metric, the number of deaths in Russia has exceeded 1 million since the start of the pandemic.

In 2020, life expectancy in the country decreased by two years, the first decline since 2003.

Experts have blamed chronically low levels of vaccination for that situation.

Despite being one of the first countries to develop and approve a coronavirus vaccine, Russia has fully vaccinated only 49 per cent of its population, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.

Distrust of the vaccine and relatively lax and inconsistent lockdown measures have contributed to people's reluctance to be vaccinated.

As in other countries, the Omicron variant has hit Russia's youth, with some hospitals reporting a rapid increase in the number of hospitalised children.

In January, Russia started vaccinating teenagers with a specific type of Sputnik V, the Russia-made vaccine.

On Friday, the Federation Council, Russia's upper chamber of parliament, reported that 20 of its senators had contracted the virus. Mr Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the populist leader of one of the country's leading political parties, has been hospitalised since last week.

President Vladimir Putin lives within strict protective measures to keep the virus at bay, even as world leaders travel to Moscow to try to defuse tensions over Russia's military buildup at Ukraine's borders. At a recent meeting with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, the two sat some 6m apart.

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