“Technically It’s Not Lockdown but It Sort of Is” - Russian Journalist on Coronavirus Measures
27 March, 2020

As of March 27, Russia has 1,036 confirmed coronavirus cases and 3 coronavirus-related deaths. Yet, many Russians think that the numbers could actually be much higher. 

Moscow mayor Segrei Sobianin recently announced that all restaurants, cafes, parks, and shopping malls need to close down. But public transport in Russia is operating as normal.

Hromadske spoke with Mikhail Fishman, a Russian journalist and political commentator, to get his perspective of the situation in the country and whether measures against the coronavirus should be stricter.

Can you comment on the correlation between cases and deaths, as even in Ukraine where there’s fewer cases there have been more deaths. Do you think that authorities are being fully transparent on reporting deaths?

We don't know how to treat these numbers because we assume the testing was not that widespread enough yet. And so the scale of the pandemic is yet to be discovered.

Probably the government doesn't tell everything they know. But now this case is much easier because now the political fact doesn't work anymore. I mean the vote on the amendments to the Constitution was postponed already so now the government has more credibility, because there are no political factors. But again, we don't know what these numbers tell us. We don't know what the numbers tell us anywhere. Because it depends on who is tested and on what occasion?

And do you know anything about testing in Russia, how easy it is to get tested? How good are the testing methods compared to Europe's?

Well, everywhere the situation is very different, as I understand. There were problems with testing in Russia. Starting from [March 26], I think two private companies started their own testing with their own equipment, mitigations and everything they need. So, starting from the worst sort of rumors and reports that the lack of testing was sort of political because the Kremlin was not interested in discovering the real scale of the pandemics – but again, this is not the case anymore – we're now probably at the verge of the start of the real testing process, and we will get to some more trustworthy numbers and clear understanding of what is going on.

You commented on some of the government's response to the pandemics already but can you tell me a bit more, can you assess how good it is? Because I know you only just stopped inbound and outbound outbound flights, and that's later than many other countries. Do you think that was too late, that it should have happened sooner?

Well, who am I to judge if it was too late or not? I'm not an expert. But secondly, you probably know that [on March 25] Vladimir Putin finally announced tough measures. He came up with his address to the nation during which he postponed this national vote on the Constitution, which again, I think, was crucial in order to address the threat. So he didn't put Russia on the lockdown technically, he didn't announce that. He announced a week off instead, starting from next week, but basically that already started today. The whole nation has a week off, they don't have to go to work. And everything except for grocery stores and pharmacies will have to shut down, including parks and all the entertainment industry. So basically, technically it's not a lockdown, but it sort of is.

We are in Ukraine, so I'm trying to compare to the situation in Ukraine. We banned all public transport apart from the most important category of employees, which is doctors, people who work in shops. I know that the Moscow mayor has announced that they are closing all restaurants and shops, as you said, but at the same time the public transport is working. So do you think more should be done? Do you think it's not enough?

Again, who am I to judge if it's enough or not? Yes, public transportation is operating. But I have to say it's also operating, I guess, everywhere, mostly everywhere in European capitals, or even in New York, which is in a very bad shape now as I understand. But the mayor also ordered those over 65 people to stay at home, it's an order. So already today as I heard preventive checks by the police forces started on the streets. So you can get fined if you're over 85 and you're out. It's not only sort of voluntarily type of lockdown, the government doesn't ask, the government tells you to stay at home if you're over 65 and asks you politely, still, to stay at home if you're not that old.

Russian president Vladimir Putin (front) wearing a yellow protective suit visits a hospital for patients with suspected COVID-19 disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in the Kommunarka settlement in New Moscow, Russia on March 24. Photo: EPA-EFE/ALEXEI DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL 

Do you think that this quarantine and further restrictions that might happen can be used by the authorities to push through unpopular political decisions?

Well, some decisions are already not so popular and it looks like a bit like half measures comparing to, I don't know, Italy, which is in a nightmare as I understand right now, or other European countries, or even the United States. But the scale of the pandemic is not that high yet. So we understand that the government does – and that probably mostly applies to the Moscow mayor now – they already started their preparations for if the pandemics starts to grow and if there will be more sick and more deaths to come.

And I didn't hear any verified, trustworthy analysis that we are going the same scenario as Italy, or it would look more like Germany, for example. No one knows. Probably the scale is still less or we are a couple of weeks late. It's obvious that one week off, this one-week sort of lockdown that was announced yesterday, won't be enough. So there will be more to come.

Can you tell me how has your work and life changed personally? Do you know if many companies are now being encouraged to set up remote working? How many people still need to go to their offices? Can you tell me a bit more of the personal and human aspect of the coronavirus in Russia?

I know that many, many responsible Muscovites already started self-isolation a couple of weeks ago. That includes me. I started to get out less already some time ago in order to help and practise this social distancing, so that it would help stop the spread of the virus. Many Muscovites did so too. For me, personally, not that much did change, I now can't do sports like I did before. But I'm not a staff-based journalist anyway, I didn't have to go to the office really. So it didn't change my life that dramatically. But I know many people whose lives have changed a lot. We are now all practicing this online socializing, some drinking on weekends, some having a glass of champagne with someone via Skype, or playing some games, or just chatting – that we started doing a  while ago.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Ukraine: Confirmed Cases So Far (UPDATING)

/By Maria Romanenko