Since first being recorded in China in December 2019, the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has spread around the world, been declared a pandemic and sent billions of people into lockdown. As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world is nearing one million, more and more draconian measures limiting the basic freedoms (like the freedom of movement and freedom of speech) of citizens are being introduced under the pretext of the need to contain the pandemic.
These swift and unprecedented changes of the social-political system around the world give rise to concerns that the world will never return to the pre-COVID-19 state and ‘temporary measures’ imposed to ‘contain the COVID-19 threat’ may turn into our new reality.
As of April 2 morning, there have been 936,865 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 47,263 deaths around the world. The United States, Italy, Spain with 215,344, 110,574 and 104,118 cases respectively. At the same time, the death rate in Italy and Spain is much higher than in the United States. This high death rate (every 8.4th infected in Italy and every 11th infected in Spain) turned the countries into a center of fear fueled by mainstream media reports designed to generate hype and attract the viewers’ attention amid the developing crisis. Bare figures provided by media without any additional context contribute to the growth of fear among the audience and justify further restrictions and emergency measures to contain the pandemic.
At the same time, a more detailed look at the situation and commentaries by medical experts and scientists indicate that the real COVID-19 threat is lower than media paint it.
The global COVID-19 numbers are yet to overcome the average effect of influenza seasons in the United States only: 61,099 people died during the 2017-2018 season (an approximately 6-month period) and 34,157 – during the 2018-2019 season (another 6-month period).
As of April 2, the 2017-2018 influenza season killed 12 times more people in the United States than the current COVID-19 outbreak. The 2018-2019 influenza season killed approximately 7 times more people than the COVID-19 outbreak.
The sky-high COVID-19 death toll in Italy also could be a result of several contributing factors:
1. A large part of COVID-19-infected people in Italy is constituted of older people (65yo+) that present severe underlying diseases and thus remain in the group of risk in the event of any new disease. The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report study says that 45% of hospitalizations, 53% of admissions to the intensive care unit (ICU), and 80% of deaths associated with COVID-19 were among adults aged 65 years and older.
2. According to the report by the Italian Ministry of Health, the 2019-2020 flu season, which was marked by an unusually warm weather, led to the deaths of fewer older Italians than average. In Italy’s northern cities that have borne the most part of Italy’s more than 12,000 deaths, overall mortality among people age 65 and over was 6% below a baseline from previous years. In central and southern Italy, the deaths were 3% below normal.
Thus, elderly people and those with severe underlying diseases who were spared death by the flu and mild weather from November through January became an outsize target for the COVID-19 outbreak in February and March.
The drop in deaths from the 2019-2020 flu season led to an increase in the pool of the most vulnerable people for COVID-19. Therefore, this part of the Italians found themselves exposed to COVID-19 starting from the end of February, and that may have contributed to an increase in the impact of the epidemic on the elderly.
The Association of Epidemiologists says that the total number of elderly dead in Italy because of the COVID-19 outbreak exceeded the mortality rate from influenza over the past two years, but this figure still has not reached the mortality rate three years ago.
The Robert Koch Institute, a German federal government agency and research institute responsible for disease control and prevention, confirms the aforementioned facts. In the report released on April 1, the Robert Koch Institute says that 86% of deaths occurred in persons aged 70 years or older.
As of April 2, there have been 77,981 COVID-19 cases and 931 COVID-19-related deaths in Germany. In comparison, the 2017-2018 influenza season affected 9,000,000 people (they requested medical aid) and led to 25,1000 deaths.
Igor Alekseevich Gundarov, a Doctor of Medicine, professor, member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, a specialist in the field of epidemiology and medical statistics, notes that the new coronavirus expansion may be linked with the previous successes in the field of combating the flu.
The new virus simply filled the created vacuum in the virus micro world that surrounds humanity. According to Gundarov, the current crisis, which caused the pandemic of fear additionally to the COVID-19 pandemic, is the result of the specific media coverage and political-motivated decisions of particular actors.
Even countries that are almost not affected impose strict measures and limit freedoms of their citizens due to the COVID-19 outbreak. A curious situation is developing inside Russia. As of April 2, there were 3,548 COVID-19 cases that led 30 deaths only.
There is no official data showing some kind of dramatic spread of the disease. All people that died from the COVID-19 outbreak are elderly or/and people with the severe underlying diseases (cancer, severe forms of diabetes, heart diseases, etc.):
- A man of unknown age, who died in St. Petersburg, and it was discovered that he had COVID-19 due to a post-mortem test;
- An 84-year-old woman in Moscow, who suffered diabetes mellitus, bronchial asthma and cardiovascular diseases;
- A 48-year-old-man in Vladimir region. He died on March 27th from pneumonia, he had a chronic illness and was hospitalized into the general department of the hospital in Kovrovo, it was discovered he had COVID-19 in a post-mortem test;
- A 52-year-old man in Pskov, he had severe underlying conditions in his lungs, but also COVID-19;
- A 90-year-old man in Moscow. He was suffering from chronic cerebral ischemia, encephalopathy and parkinsonism;
- A 69-year-old woman in Moscow for whom there is no other information;
- A 57-year-old man in Orenburg, who had several chronic conditions;
- A 73-year-old man in St. Petersburg, who returned from Thailand on March 1st. He suffered from several chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease and chronic heart failure, he died of acute heart failure, but had COVID-19, so he was registered as a victim of the virus;
- A 56-year-old woman in Moscow. One of her lungs had been extracted previously due to cancer, she was confirmed with a left-sided pneumonia when admitted to hospital;
- A 70-year-old woman in Moscow. She suffered from diabetes for 20 years, had terminal renal failure and other underlying conditions, she was registered as a COVID-19 victim;
- An 88-year-old man in Moscow, with several underlying conditions;
- A 73-year-old man in Moscow, also with several underlying conditions;
- A 75-year-old male in Penza with numerous chronic diseases;
- Three 76 – 86 years old people in Moscow. All patients had chronic diseases, in particular cardiovascular. Chronic pyelonephritis, bronchial asthma, chronic brain ischemia were also among concomitant diseases. Two of the patients suffered from diabetes;
- A 65-year-old woman in the Moscow region. She had diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular diseases and suffered a heart attack in 2019;
- Three 63-72 years old people in Moscow. All patients had concomitant diseases, including cardiovascular;
- An 82-year-old woman in Chechnya;
- Five people of 61 – 74 years old. All patients had concomitant diseases, including cardiosclerosis, hypertension and diabetes mellitus;
- A 59-year-old man in the Moscow region. He had chronic diseases of the cardiovascular system, kidneys and liver;
- A 45-year-old man in Pskov. Before being infected with COVID-19, he was diagnosed with lung disease;
- A 48-year-old main in Perm. He had severe oncological problems.
In response to the situation, on March 30, Moscow (official population – over 13 million, estimated – up to 18 million) was put under mandatory lockdown. Under the rules, people would be allowed to only leave home for medical emergencies or to buy groceries or medication and only from the nearest shops and pharmacies. People can still leave the capital, and go to work (if this is needed). People are restricted to an area within 100m of their home. The authorities also plan to introduce a “smart control system,” after which residents will not be allowed to leave their homes without permits.
On April 2, Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin announced administrative fines for violations of the regime of ‘self-isolation’ in the city. The document (a law of Moscow city) was published on the mayor’s official website. The law provides for a fine for violators of up to 5,000 rubles (~ 65 USD), and for organizations – up to 500,000 rubles (6,410 USD). Meanwhile, in another Russian region, Krasnadar Krai, a fine for violators of the regime of ‘self-isolation’ is 15,000 rubles (~192 USD) and more.
Local authorities justified the move with the need to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak and minimize possible damage from people that violate the regime of self-isolation and other important anti-pandemic measures. This is an important task. However, under the Constitution, local authorities do not have the right to introduce such restrictions.
In the following few days, several other Russian regions introduced measures of this kind. Some of them even entered a mandatory regime of ‘administrative self-isolation’.
For example, the Republic of Chechnya announced that it is closing its administrative borders from April 5.
The Republic of Crimea announced a regime of self-isolation from April 3, establishing a checkpoint on the bridge with the mainland where all people entering and leaving the Republic are checked.
The Republic of Tatarstan overcame even Moscow. The regime of self-isolation was introduced there on April 1. People there can leave their homes only for emergency medical care, or in cases of a direct threat to their lives, visit the closest shop to buy food and other essential products, walking pets (100m from home) and move their trash to the nearest place of accumulation of waste. People can leave home for a longer distance and for a longer time only under a special permission received via a special SMS service.
Meanwhile, the government is imposing severe punishments for spreading false information about the coronavirus and breaking quarantine rules as most regions have gone into lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. The legislation was approved by both houses of the Parliament on March 31 and signed by President Vladimir Putin on April 1.
Here is a brief overview of the new measures prepared by The Moscow Times:
What happens if you’re convicted of breaking quarantine rules?
— You will be fined up to 40,000 rubles ($640). Companies and public officials face fines of up to 150,000 rubles ($2,400), while legal entities face fines of up to half a million rubles ($7,900).
— If the violation causes health issues or death, you will be fined up to 300,000 rubles ($4,800). Companies and public officials will be fined up to half a million rubles and 1 million rubles, respectively.
— In what Russia’s consumer protection watchdog has said applies only to legal entities and public officials, quarantine dodging can also result in up to two years in prison.
— If the violation causes one death, prison terms increase to up to five years.
— If the violation causes two or more deaths, flouting quarantine rules results in prison terms of up to seven years.
What happens if you’re convicted of spreading false information about Covid-19?
— Under one amendment, you will be jailed for up to three years “for threatening people’s lives and safety” with false information. You will also be fined up to 700,000 rubles ($11,200).
— Under the other amendment, you will be jailed for up to five years “for distributing deliberately false information of public significance” if it leads to death or “other grave consequences.” You will also be fined up to 2 million rubles ($32,000).
Who can declare an emergency situation?
— Putin, and now the cabinet of ministers. In addition to the stiffer fines and long jail terms, lawmakers have rushed through bills that grant the Russian government the authority to enact a nationwide state of emergency or “high-alert regime.”
— The Kremlin said it supported expanding the government’s emergency powers. Putin has been criticized for falling short of declaring a national emergency or imposing lockdown rules similar to those now in place across U.S., European and other cities.
The measures approved by the Federal Government demonstrate that the Russian leadership fully understand the threat of fake news attacks and foreign-instigated panic, as well as treats seriously destructive actions of separate persons and organizations that intentionally ignore the anti-pandemic measures.
On the other hand, the ‘administrative self-isolation’ measures employed by some regions contribute to the de-facto fragmentation of the Russian Federation and the introduction of Orwellian control measures over people living in the key regions, like Moscow, the Moscow region and the Republic of Tatarstan. These actions of regional authorities violate both the Russian Constitution and the federal laws.
The spreading regime of ‘administrative self-isolation’ in the Russian regions seems to have been initiated by some of the regional elites (i.e.not by the federal center or Putin and his team). The way that the heads of particular regions are acting makes it look like they are implementing pre-planned actions aimed at dramatically increasing their own political power and wresting authority away from the central government.
The central government enables this behavior under the pressure of the media and political hysteria around the world or remains misinformed about the real situation.
All of these developments came in a very sensitive time for Russia, which is now passing through the constitutional reform and suffering from the dramatic fall of the oil prices. The imposed anti-COVID-19 measures also damage the local business and the job market throwing people out of their positions. In the event of the negative scenario, this may rapidly lead to the deterioration of the social and economic situation across the country.
Authorities say that introduced surveillance measures and limitations of freedoms will be canceled after the end of the COVID-19 outbreak. Nevertheless, the historical practice demonstrates that there is a nonzero probability that they will remain, or will be only partially lifted, even after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The specific of the Russian political culture, a complex tangle of contradictions within the Russian regional and federal elites, as well as the fact that a significant part of the Russian elites is affiliated with the collective West contribute to this scenario.
Therefore, the developments triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to the deformation of the political and administrative structure of the Russian Federation, and lead to notable social and economic tensions. If this scenario turns into reality, the stability of the entire Eurasian region will be undermined.
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