Opinion | Late in the Game, Russia Steps Up to Covid-19

In response, Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, has taken the lead in quarantine policymaking. He has issued additional “regional” restrictions on businesses and movements around town. He has imposed a self-isolation regime and is seeking an app that would allow the mayor’s office to police the compliance. Now, with no coherent nationwide policy announced, other regional and municipal authorities have been making their own decisions, which is unusual, considering Russia’s normally hypercentralized decision-making process.

After Mr. Putin’s address to the nation, the number of Covid-19 cases started to grow. On Sunday, Russia confirmed more than 670 new coronavirus infections in a day, bringing the official total to almost 5,400.

But most people in Russia are unsure what to believe: 24 percent of those polled by the nongovernmental Levada Center say they distrust official information on the pandemic; 35 percent say they trust it only “in part.”

That leaves many Russians thinking the authorities have been whitewashing the threat by preventing doctors from diagnosing Covid-19. Indeed, in January, Russia registered a spike in pneumonia of 37 percent more cases than a year ago, according to Russia’s statistical agency. Many think that most of the pneumonias could in fact have been Covid-19 cases. In a country of 144 million people, with a long border with China and, until recently, busy connections with Italy, the official tally seems incredibly low.

The true scale of the virus spread in Russia is unknowable for all those reasons, and more. Russia’s tests for the coronavirus are much less sensitive than those used in other countries. As of March 21, Russia had carried out 133,100 tests with 306 returning positive. At 0.21 percent, the ratio of tests to positive cases is startlingly low, when compared with most other countries’ results.

Amid the current confusion, a grim alternative explanation for Russia’s lax response has been circulating: that it is a deliberate policy of letting the virus spread to as many people as possible, in expectation that they will become immune to the new pathogen, assuming they live. That’s a rumor, of course, too gruesome to discuss publicly because of the obvious human cost such a policy would risk.

So what can Russia do? China and Germany provide opposing alternatives. China’s leaders, after hesitation, unleashed the full power of an authoritarian state against the outbreak. It worked, but the aggressive quarantine efforts and extensive use of human-tracking technologies will attract criticism for a long time.

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