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COVID-19 infections in Russia surge as well as the death toll

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Russia is in the middle of a grim streak. COVID infections are up by a lot. Even the official statistics acknowledge that, and many people are skeptical of those numbers. And while many countries in Western Europe are reporting 70, 80 or even 90% of their people vaccinated, in Russia, it is less than a third. NPR's Charles Maynes joins us now from Moscow. Good morning.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

DETROW: So Russia's task force - coronavirus task force issues daily updates. Can you bring us up to speed on the latest figures?

MAYNES: Yeah, sure. We got the latest numbers just a little while ago. It's over 33,000 infections and more than a thousand deaths over the past 24 hours. That's a new daily record for fatalities, in fact, with 1,015 lives lost and very much in keeping with this recent trend of near daily milestones for both infections and fatalities. You know, as you suggested in your intro, that's only the official score. There's compelling evidence that the real death count is much higher than the quarter million Russians officially lost to the virus so far. You know, and certainly we see signs that this latest surge is putting enormous strain on Russia's health care system. Case in point, the government is asking retired doctors to come back to work to help care for the sick.

DETROW: Wow. What is driving this spike in infections and deaths?

MAYNES: Well, like other countries, Russia is facing this fourth wave from the more transmissible delta strain of the virus. But the real issue here is vaccinations. Less than a third, as you noted in the intro, is - of the population is fully vaccinated. And polls show that a majority of Russians just don't want to get the shot. They don't want it.

DETROW: That's surprising to me because, you know, the Russian government put such a big emphasis on the fact that it came up with its own vaccine, the Sputnik V vaccine. It was this moment of national pride. Why the skepticism?

MAYNES: Right. You know, it's partially explained by a growing distrust of science, which we see in the U.S., of course, too. So it's a kind of Russian anti-vaxxer movement, if you will. But the politicized rollout of Sputnik V didn't help. Russia skipped the stage 3 trials in this push to claim itself as having the world's first effective vaccine, as they like to say here. And that generated a lot of skepticism. And even after independent studies showed that Sputnik V indeed was effective, a lot of people still didn't believe it to which some point to Russians' overexposure to years of state media that's always crackling with conspiracies and promoting distrust of everything. So you know, the irony here is that when it comes to Sputnik V, Russia's own state propaganda unintentionally cast doubt on Russia's own very real scientific achievements.

DETROW: Interesting. So given all of that, what is the government trying to do to increase vaccination levels and bring down these trends?

MAYNES: Well, they're increasing - well, I should say increasing numbers of regional governors are introducing proof of vaccine programs. So you show a QR code or a recent negative test to get into a cafe, a museum or, you know, a theater, that kind of thing. In Moscow, they're stopping short of that, but they finally started enforcing mask requirements on public transportation. Before that, it was quite lax. President Putin - Vladimir Putin is also promoting the vaccine to a degree. He's insisting that he owes his own good health to Sputnik V after a recent exposure to an outbreak of COVID in his inner circle.

But you know, on the other hand, Putin has turned a blind eye to large public gatherings when politically expedient, and the Kremlin insists it won't mandate vaccines or reintroduce shutdowns like they did last year. And you know, the reason is that the last time they did this, President Putin saw his polling numbers plummet. And so basically, they're leaving it to local authorities to handle the mess, which is very much in keeping with the general pattern of delegating unpopular measures down the chain of command.

DETROW: That is NPR's Charles Maynes joining us now from Moscow. Thank you so much.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "LIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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