Analysing Russia's dismal vaccination rate (lowest of any large city in Europe)


For people interested in Russian events, particularly pertaining to how their vaccination campaign is going, here is an article on how it is going in Russia. The answer is: very badly.

I don't have time to translate everything. But the basic gist is that Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (who is a member of Putin's ruling party, and thus not inclined to make the government look bad by emphasizing the negative), is publicly lamenting the fact that Moscow has the lowest vaccination rate of any large city in Europe, a circumstance he blames on vaccine hesitancy. About 10.3% of Muscovites have gotten at least one vaccine dose, only slightly higher than the national average of 9.5% (which is itself very bad). A few thoughts on this:

  1. Vaccine hesitancy really is the likely cause here. Russia has a substantial supply of vaccines, at this point, having produced several in large quantities.
  2. The hesitancy is likely due to the fact that Russians have a long history of distrusting both the government and the nation's (largely government-controlled) medical establishment. Thus, many simply don't believe the government when it says the vaccines are safe and effective.
  3. That the vaccination rate is so low in Moscow is an especially bad sign. Traditionally, Moscow gets more of everything from the central government than any other region. You can be sure they were first in line for vaccines. Plus, Moscow has a wealthier and more highly educated population than the rest of the country (both factors tend to reduce vaccine hesitancy). On the other hand, Moscow (like St. Petersburg, the second largest city) is a center of liberal opposition to Putin. Thus, it may have a higher than average percentage of people who distrust the regime and its assurances.
  4. My contacts with friends and relatives in Russia are broadly consistent with the above picture. Some of my contacts were eager to get vaccinated and have gotten their doses. But a good many refuse to do so, because they simply don't believe anything the government says. My contacts are, of course, not representative. They are, on average, more knowledgeable and educated than the rest of the population - and more likely be hostile to Putin (though not all hold the latter view, by any means). Plus, they are disproportionately Jewish (which correlates with knowledge and education, but also with distrust of the regime and opposition to Putin).
  5. The distrust and fear is understandable. Successive Russian governments (including Putin's!) have, to put it mildly, done little to demonstrate their trustworthiness. The health care system also has a long history of, among other things, being used as a tool of state repression. Most recently, several doctors critical of the government's covid policies suffered "accidents" such as falling out of windows. If you believe those falls were truly accidental, I have a Potemkin Village I would like to sell you!
  6. The tragedy here is that at least some of the Russian vaccines are actually highly effective. Just this one time, the government is actually telling the truth! Sputnik V has done well in trials in the West, not just Russia. The microstate of San Marino has vaccinated most of their population with it and it has almost ended the pandemic there (Putin has been exporting the vaccine at relatively low prices, in order to burnish Russia's image abroad). But most Russians either don't know about the Western experience with Sputnik or don't believe it when the government cites it.
  7. Why doesn't the government simply make vaccination mandatory? The Russian state isn't exactly known for its squeamishness about coercion. I don't know the answer for sure. But I suspect Putin fears any such mandate won't be obeyed, and could even spark a popular uprising at a time when his popularity is already falling, thanks to the pandemic and associated economic crisis. Plus, the anti-vaxxer contingent probably includes many soldiers, police, and Interior Ministry personnel. If ordered to enforce a vaccine mandate (and especially if ordered to to get vaccinated themselves!), they might refuse orders or even turn their guns on the regime. The last thing Putin wants is to alienate the military and security forces, who are the most important foundation of his power.
  8. A few of my friends in Russia are avoiding Covid by working at home and going out as little as possible. But this just isn't a viable solution for the overwhelming majority of Russians (it wasn't even viable for most Americans!). It's a poor nation (per capita income about the same level as Mexico), and most people have to work and shop in person. Plus, many people live in cramped conditions.

There isn't any easy solution to this problem, except perhaps that vaccine hesitancy might fall as more people come to know someone who's vaccinated, and hasn't suffered any harm as a result. A good many Russians also have friends and relatives abroad, who might be able to convey more accurate information (though my own efforts to do this have had mixed results, at most).

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