Russia has pushed vaccine conspiracies. Now it’s turning against me

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

But the coronavirus is back in town. Moscow has just registered the highest number of new cases since the start of the pandemic. Hospital admissions are exploding – comparable to the first wave – and hundreds of people are dying every day. In response, the government is tightening restrictions and making vaccinations mandatory. But many Russians say this crisis management is marked by hypocrisy.

“It’s the same lockdown they made fun of ‘dying’ Europe. The same lockdown they promised not to introduce,” job a Twitter user earlier this week.

For months, the Russian government and state-controlled media have scoffed at lockdown restrictions in the West, promising nothing of the sort would happen in Russia. Now, as Europe and the United States are opening up, Russia is closing. On Thursday, the Buryat region introduced a full lockdown, and more are expected. After using its powerful propaganda machine to undermine Western vaccines, the country’s government is now scrambling to convince its people to get vaccinated.

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

In August 2020, Russia announced that it had won the “vaccine race” and the country’s foreign ministry got down to work to advertise Sputnik to the world. Media briefings included regular reminders that instead of racking up vaccines (like US and EU countries), Moscow was shipping them to places that needed them most, from India to Argentina.

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

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

“The propaganda machine, which has defied viewers’ critical thinking for 20 years, is surprised when these viewers believe in the craziest anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories. ” read a reaction on Twitter to a report by a pro-government television station on the dangers of vaccine hesitation.

To combat the conspiracy theories it helped spread, the Russian government first attempted to encourage vaccination with perks: discounts, gift cards, airline miles, raffles to win cars and apartments, even money. When that didn’t work, he hardened his stance. But the message is once again full of contradictions. Take a look at this timeline:

  • June 16: Compulsory vaccination is introduced in Moscow for anyone working in the service sector. Companies are urged to suspend unvaccinated employees, and Muscovites can no longer be hospitalized for non-emergency reasons in public health facilities. Within days, dozens of other regions introduced the same measures.
  • June 19: Yakutia, Russia’s largest administrative region, is introducing compulsory vaccination for workers in a wider range of industries, including education and construction. In Novgorod, couples can no longer get married without a vaccination certificate, PCR or antibody test.
  • June 28: Proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test will be required to dine in restaurants in the capital.

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

Confused? U.S. too. What is clear, however, is that, according to this recent survey, 60% of Russians oppose compulsory vaccination. Hundreds of people 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 Moscow’s deputy mayor Anastasia Rakova, vaccination rates in the capital have increased by up to 500% over the past week.

But the same goes for the request for false vaccination certificates.

In the Moscow region alone, police have initiated more than 24 criminal proceedings and removed at least 150 websites offering forged documents. A recent survey by independent news site Baza found that it costs around $ 140 to buy a fake certificate online. Pay a little more and fake vaccine dealers will add official registration on the government portal and your digital medical records.

Alla, a reporter, who asked that her last name not be used, told me that in her circle of friends, even medical students buy fake certificates. A lot because they think there is not enough data to prove that Sputnik V or any other Russian vaccine is safe.

“Everyone who has heard of compulsory vaccination is looking to buy a certificate so that they do not lose their job,” she said. “Instead of releasing 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 the mandatory vaccination program will backfire, as is the Western vaccine disinformation campaign.

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

“Every step the government has taken just puts another nail in the coffin of people’s confidence in immunization. ”

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