Russia’s QR Quagmire

Alexandra Tyan

 

“I checked my grandmother’s diaper, it was filthy. She had her oxygen mask up on her forehead. She has three bed sores, one on her knee, two on her hips.” — this is how Sergey Samborsky, a 27-year old welder from Siberia, described the state in which he found his grandmother after she was hospitalized with Covid-19 at the end of October. She died a few days later.

The covid situation in Russia is dire: this last year the overall death rate reached the numbers comparable to the World War II losses. Tens of thousands of Covid-19 cases are being registered daily, while vaccination rates remain at 41%, disappointing for a country that actually came up with the world’s first vaccine. 

Like Samborsky’s case, Russia’s pandemic story is filled with unbelievable human tragedy. It also illustrates what happens when there is no trust and respect between people and the authorities. “To stay alive, scum, get your Covid jabs,” is a vaccination slogan shared by a local municipality just outside Moscow on their Telegram channel. The response is equally dismissive and spiteful. Right now, thousands of people are refusing to go along with the government’s latest attempt to curb the pandemic — a QR-code system similar to the European “Green pass.”

The Moscow Duma first discussed the new restrictions about a month ago. But the government has since dragged its feet, allegedly testing people’s reaction. It could also be nervousness: according to Meduza the Kremlin is so fearful that QR-codes will cause mass protests that it is considering renaming them into something more “positive,” like “health pass.” But this wobbly attitude could in fact be making things worse.

“The policy is being introduced very inconsistently: first introduced — then cancelled, introduced again, cancelled again,” Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center in Moscow, told Coda. “People find this constant back and forth very annoying and it discredits the measures being taken.” 

Levada’s surveys show that up to 75% of Russians are against QR-codes, while the fear of the virus itself, despite exorbitant numbers, seems to be lower than ever. “Everyone’s used to it,” Volkov shrugs. 

Without the vaccination QR-codes Russians can face dismissal from work, suspension from studies, exclusion from sports facilities and segregation in public spaces. These measures are not massively different from those imposed by the European governments, and there too, of course, protests have been widespread. But the Russians stubborn refusal to vaccinate is driven not so much by the anti-vaccine sentiment, but a rebellion against what is perceived as yet another humiliating government mechanism.

Ruslan Suldygov, a 29-year-old programmer and anti-QR code activist from Voronezh told me he believes QR codes have nothing to do with health. “QR codes are just another vague repressive measure which downgrades a huge number of people.” 

Ruslan runs a Telegram channel where he encourages people to sign petitions against the restrictions and submit official complaints to the local governor. So far, local activists have collected 4,000 signatures. Humble, compared to some other petitions online — like this one called “No to a QR-ghetto!” that already has over 370,000 signatories.

And it’s not just online: this week in Ufa, a group of women in their fifties protested in a carpark, ripping up sheets of paper with images of QR-codes. In Kazan, activists turned up to court wearing prison uniforms. In Kostroma, locals danced around a fountain chanting, “We are against QR-codes!” Protests — large and small — are happening all across Russia.

While trying to convince people to vaccinate, the Russian state media carries on attacking other vaccines and the people Sputnik V’s official account keep trolling Pfizer on Twitter: “Pfizer says that a 7th dose of its vaccine may be needed to protect from omicron…Sorry, a mistake, they actually said just the 4th for now.” read the latest tweet.

IN OTHER INFODEMIC NEWS: 

The Supreme Court in Brazil has launched a probe into President Jair Bolsonaro claims that covid vaccines could increase the likelihood of contracting AIDS. But while Bolsonaro may be grabbing global headlines, for me the week’s Infodemic award goes to the anti-vaxxers trying to inhale ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug that no one should ever use to treat covid. And yet, the unproven drug has long been a favorite for the anti-vaxxers, although this is the first time we’ve spotted someone trying to inhale it. To be fair the reaction of all members of the anti-vaxxer groups was unanimous: do NOT do it. It was all captured by @VaxxersAnti who tweeted, “As hard as it is to believe, it turns out the people that drink bleach and spread horse paste on toast actually have a line they won’t cross.” More on Ivermectin and Brazil here.

Prosecutors in Germany believe that a horrifying murder-suicide case, in which a 40-year-old man shot dead his wife and children before killing himself, could be linked to a fake covid certificate. The bodies of five people — including three children aged 4, 8 and 10 — were found with gunshot wounds at their home in Koenigs Wusterhausen on Saturday. It turns out that the man left a note explaining that his wife’s employee had found out that her covid vaccination certificate was fake and the couple were worried that they might be arrested and their children taken away. 

And being anti-vaxxer seems to be a lonely business in Azerbaijan. The oil rich nation in the South Caucasus has much higher vaccination rate than neighboring Armenia and Georgia, and anti-vaccine sentiments just don’t seem to be much of an issue. In fact, the country’s anti-vaxxer in chief has complained to our colleagues from Eurasianet about being ridiculed. I recommend their piece

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