Russia pushed vaccine conspiracies. Now it’s backfiring


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It’s 10:55 p.m. in Moscow and customers at my local bar are rushing to finish their cocktails. Waiters are running around with credit card machines. In a city known for its nightlife, it’s a strange scene. 

But coronavirus is back in town. Moscow just recorded the highest number of new cases since the pandemic began. Hospital admissions are through the roof — comparable to the first wave — and hundreds are dying every day. In response, the government is tightening restrictions and making vaccinations mandatory. But many Russians say this crisis management is laced with hypocrisy.

”This is the same lockdown they mocked pointing at the ‘dying’ Europe. The same lockdown that they promised they would not introduce,” posted one Twitter user earlier this week.

For months, the Russian government and state-controlled media laughed at lockdown restrictions in the West, promising that nothing of the sort would happen in Russia. Now, as Europe and the United States are opening up, Russia is closing down. On Thursday, the Buryatia region introduced a full lockdown, and more are expected. Having used its mighty propaganda machine to undermine Western vaccines, the nation’s government is now scrambling to convince its people to get their shots.

Despite the fact that the Russian government was among the first in the world to start vaccinating its population with the homegrown Sputnik V, to date, only 11% of the population has been fully vaccinated (compare that to the average of 34% in Europe). Just over 14% has received one dose. 

Back in August 2020, Russia announced that it had won the “vaccine race” and the country’s Foreign Ministry got to work on advertising Sputnik to the world. Press briefings included regular reminders that, instead of hoarding vaccines (like the U.S. and E.U. nations), Moscow was shipping them to the places that needed them most, from India to Argentina. 

But, while promoting Sputnik, Russian government-controlled media outlets also attacked Western vaccines and pushed conspiracy theories. “That vaccine was created based on monkey adenovirus, not human, like our vaccine. So it turns out that Oxford made more of a monkey vaccine” — is how Dmitry Kiselev described the AstraZeneca shot on his fervently pro-Kremlin TV show “Vesti Nedeli” back in October.

With millions of Russians now refusing to vaccinate, many believe that the country’s selectively anti-vaccine propaganda effort is backfiring. 

“Propaganda machine, having challenged viewers’ critical thinking for 20 years, acts surprised when said viewers believe the wildest anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories,” read one Twitter reaction to a pro-government TV channel’s reporting on the dangers of vaccine hesitancy.

To fight the conspiracy theories it has helped to spread, the Russian government first tried to encourage vaccination with perks: discounts, gift cards, air miles, raffles to win cars and flats, even cash. When that didn’t work, it toughened its stance. But the message is once again full of contradictions. Just have a look at this chronology: 

  • June 16: Mandatory inoculation is introduced in Moscow for everyone working in the service industry. Businesses are told to suspend unvaccinated employees, and Muscovites can no longer be hospitalized for non-emergency reasons in government healthcare institutions. Within days, dozens of other regions introduced the same measures. 
  • June 19: Yakutia, Russia’s largest administrative region, introduces mandatory vaccination for workers in a wider range of industries, including education and construction. In Novgorod, couples can no longer get married without a vaccine certificate, a PCR or antibody test.
  • June 28: Proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test will be required to dine in the capital’s restaurants.

And yet, on June 24, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said that vaccinations remain voluntary. 

Confused? So are we. What is clear, however, is that, according to this recent survey, 60% of Russians oppose mandatory vaccination. Hundreds have taken to Twitter and Facebook, to make dramatic comparisons between the new regulations and those of Nazi Germany or early-20th-century racial segregation in the United States. 

On paper, the new measures seem to be working. According to Deputy Mayor of Moscow Anastasia Rakova, vaccination rates in the capital have increased by up to 500% over the past week. 

But so has the demand for fake vaccination certificates. 

In the Moscow region alone, police have started over 24 criminal proceedings and deleted at least 150 websites offering counterfeit documents. A recent investigation by the independent news site Baza revealed that it costs around $140 to buy a fake certificate online. Pay a bit more and fake vaccination merchants will throw in an official registration on the government portal and your digital medical records. 

Alla, a journalist, who requested that her family name not be used, told me that in her circle of friends even medical students are buying fake certificates. Many because they believe that there isn’t enough data to prove that Sputnik V or any other Russian vaccine is safe. 

“Everyone who heard about the compulsory vaccination is looking to buy a certificate, so as not to lose their job,” she said. “Instead of publishing the vaccine research data, the government is using the carrot or stick approach and shouting how we are the first to invent the Covid vaccine”.

Alla fears that the mandatory vaccination program will backfire, just as the disinformation campaign against Western vaccines did. 

“Voluntary and compulsory measures will lead to some people actually getting vaccinated and others buying certificates,” she said, adding that while vaccination statistics will improve, they will not reflect the real numbers.. 

“Each step taken by the government only puts another nail in the coffin of people’s trust in vaccination.” 

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