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How The Coronavirus Is Affecting Life And Politics In Russia : NPR

Russian President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged the impact of the coronavirus, postponing a referendum that could have extended his term in office and ordering Russians not to go to work next week.



AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a step-up in how his country should respond to the coronavirus. In a televised address today, he ordered Russia to take next week off from work. Putin also called for the postponement of an upcoming referendum on changes to the constitution – changes that would include extending his term in office. For the latest on how the pandemic is unfolding in Russia, we’re joined now by reporter Charles Maynes in Moscow.

Hey, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So in this latest address, how did Putin characterize the threat to Russia from the coronavirus?

MAYNES: Well, you know, he said this was something that Russians couldn’t expect the government to keep at bay, that already affected most of the world and was increasingly a danger at home. You have to keep in mind that Russia now has over 650 cases – that’s, of course, far less than other countries but a big spike here just in the past week alone. Now, what does that mean? It means that Putin said this means they’re going to postpone the constitutional vote. This was a key amendment of which would allow Putin to stay in power beyond his current term and into the next decade. He made it clear he wasn’t happy about it. But clearly, this was a move that they felt they couldn’t, you know, go forward with because the problem was they need to get the vote out, and you can’t do that when you’re encouraging people to stay home.

If you go to the rest of his message today, he was saying, you know, look; we want people to take a week off of work. Stay home if you can. Then there are a lot of measures just basically focused on saving the economy – propping up small business – mid-sized business, giving Russians a break from taxes, debt relief, things like that.

CHANG: OK, so definitely expressing some concern – isn’t this sort of a shift in tone, though, from Putin? I mean, up until now, it seemed like the Kremlin had been downplaying the crisis.

MAYNES: Yeah, it was. I mean, Putin said just last week the virus was under control, largely due to smart policies and early testing. Just consider that yesterday, Putin was actually at a contagion ward, wearing this yellow hazmat suit in front of cameras – it was kind of a PR event – and praising the Russian response as going like clockwork and saying, you know, this is the way things should work. But generally, you know, cases in Russia have been presented as coming from overseas, that they were either Chinese nationals or Russians who are vacationing in Italy who had brought it back – so definitely a change here.

CHANG: Still, though, these newest restrictions that we’re seeing in Russia now, like, don’t go to work next week – they don’t seem as rigorous as the lockdowns in other ways daily life has transformed in other countries in Europe.

MAYNES: You know, they’re not. There’s still – there’s not a ban on, say, going outside. You know, but life has changed here. I mean, schools have been closed for – are closed, now, for the next few weeks. Businesses have been encouraged to have employees that work from home. We’ve seen, you know, people on home quarantine who are over the age of 65. That’s another measure that went into play this week. And I should add that also, those who arrived from overseas from coronavirus hotspots, including the U.S., are under home quarantine. That includes me. I’m on Day 7. You know, and we’ve also seen the Duma toughening all these penalties against those who violate any of these quarantine rules. So you can spend a significant time in jail – up to seven years – if you’re caught violating this.

CHANG: And how much do you think individual Russians there believe what the government is telling them about how they’re handling the pandemic? I mean, do you get the sense that they’re confident Russia has the health facilities and the medical equipment to handle everything?

MAYNES: Well, it’s always been a sort of split-screen reality. On the one hand, the government’s saying, we’re in charge, and we’ve got this. On the other hand, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a general deep distrust of what the government tells them. So there’s been a lot of skepticism over infection rates, about the quality of testing, about even how these diagnoses are being given out. So for example, there are stories of doctors being pressured to diagnose COVID-19 is pneumonia or flu to keep the rates down. So I think there’s a sense now that the virus is far more widespread, and that’s part of what Putin seemed to acknowledge today.

CHANG: Reporter Charles Maynes in Moscow, thank you very much.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEEM THE CIPHER’S “ALPHA”)

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