A day after President Vladimir Putin announced a nine-day paid national holiday in a bid to stem the spread of Covid 19, hotel reservations in the seaside town of Sochi surged.
The rush for Russia’s most popular Black Sea beaches forced the regional governor to issue a clarification, along with additional measures to deter the last minute tourists.
“This is not a week of additional vacation,” Veniamin Kondratiev said. Hotel bookings, flights, and the operation of shopping centres and resorts would be curtailed, he added.
The dash to the Russian seaside comes after weeks of public statements from Mr Putin and his government that the coronavirus pandemic was “under control” after authorities closed off international flights and ordered travellers entering the country into quarantine.
The rising number of Covid 19 cases in Moscow and the quarantines enforced throughout Europe and the US, led the Kremlin to change tack last week. In steps now familiar everywhere coronavirus strikes, it has requested people to stay at home and many businesses to close as over fears that a sharp increase in infections could overwhelm the cash-strapped state health system.
The measures are an additional blow to the Russian economy: last month, Mr Putin harmed its growth potential by walking away from an oil production pact with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh triggered a price war that sent the price of crude — Russia’s key export — down to 18 year lows. Now, the Covid 19 pandemic could cause gross domestic product to fall 2.7 per cent in 2020, according to BCS Global Markets.
Criticism at home is mounting that the measures to tackle both the outbreak and the economic fallout are too little, too late. “The country urgently needs a clear plan to combat the epidemic and the economic crisis,” wrote 14 leading Russian academics in an open letter published on Friday. “Instead of the ‘non-working week’ . . . it is necessary to impose strict quarantine.”
Russia on Sunday announced it had identified 1,534 cases of coronavirus, fewer than other big European countries but roughly twice that recorded three days before. Eight people have died of the virus.
“Russia risks heading toward a Hubei situation,” said Charles Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital, whose models forecast that Russia could have around 10,000 cases by April 10. “But [it] should not suffer as much as Italy or the US.”
The nine-day semi-curfew was described by Mr Putin as “a long weekend” during which people are asked to work from home while all bars, restaurants and non-essential shops will be closed in Moscow. It does not impose a strict quarantine on citizens or bar them from public spaces, with the exception of some prominent parks in the capital.
Mikhail Mishustin, Russia’s prime minister, on Friday urged the population “to be serious and responsible”. “You probably planned to visit shopping centres, go to cafés, go to get treatment, but it is important to understand that coronavirus comes from making journeys and you get infected in crowded places,” he said.
But on Saturday morning, when the measures came into force, many of Moscow’s cafés in the city centre were open with people enjoying breakfast. Others queued outside McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC branches where employees had simply moved an order desk to the front door to use a loophole permitting delivery orders.
While the streets and roads were emptier than a typical weekend, exemptions appeared to have been granted to more shops than just supermarkets and pharmacies, with electronic goods stores, toy shops and bakeries still operating.
The lack of restrictions on movement and social interactions means citizens feel they are given an unexpected holiday, the 14 academics said in their letter. “This mistake was already made a month ago in Italy . . . When Italy realised its mistake two weeks later and announced strict quarantine, it was too late,” they wrote. “Insufficient or false information can seriously complicate the task.”
On Sunday, Moscow’s mayor said he would enforce a strict quarantine from Monday, banning people from leaving their homes except for essential workers, people requiring medical care, visiting the nearest shop or walking pets no further than 100m.
A poll last week by the Levada Center, Russia’s sole pollster independent from the government, showed 38 per cent of Russians “fully” or “to a large extent” trusted the authorities’ official statements regarding the pandemic.
Authorities are building a dedicated coronavirus hospital using prefabricated materials on the outskirts of Moscow, and Russia’s armed forces are building another 16 infectious disease centres across the country. An additional 13,000 beds for Covid-19 patients will be created nationwide, the government has said.
But medical associations have called on the government to speed up the distribution of protective equipment and doctors across the country send cries for help on social media.
“We have nothing,” Tatiana Reva, a doctor in a hospital outside the city of Volgograd, said in a video posted online. “There are two ventilators and one is broken.”
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