It seemed an unlikely miracle. Russia’s risk factors include a health-care system that is creaky at best outside of the affluent city centers; countless international travelers; a large migrant labor force; and a 2,600-mile border with China, where the virus originated. While covid-19 was filling European hospitals, Russia was still filling soccer stadiums with fans and, in one case, the opening ceremony of a chess event in a theater with more than a thousand people.
Yet the official Kremlin line, parroted to varying degrees by every Russian news outlet, was that rapid testing and travel restrictions had turned the country into a citadel. Reports on Russia’s success were also spread by the international media with only marginally greater skepticism — despite having spent the past three years reporting on Moscow’s ability to blanket the world with lies.
The Kremlin could fudge the coronavirus numbers, tout its response on state-run media and censor social media posts exposing a mounting crisis, but ultimately — just as China discovered — the government could not spin a relentless virus.
In the past few days, the Russian facade has begun to crack. Reports of overloaded hospitals are emerging, Moscow’s mayor said the official numbers were wrong, and Putin made one of his ritual photo-ops at a hospital in full protective gear, finally acknowledging the crisis. If the Trump administration’s example is anything to go by, months of ignoring and distorting reality will almost certainly make the consequences in Russia far worse.
It is remarkable that anyone ever took Russia’s coronavirus numbers at face value. Like most dictatorships, Putin’s regime lies constantly, even when it doesn’t have to. Authoritarian regimes are obsessed with information control, especially when there is news that could make them look weak. No appearance of vulnerability can be permitted, otherwise the people might start getting dangerous ideas.
Then there is Putin’s track record in the specific realm of health and epidemics. HIV officially barely exists in Russia, where it is still wrongly considered a “gay disease,” and where the LGBTQ community is a persecuted minority. Activist groups trying to track HIV and educate about it are harassed and shut down. Unsurprisingly, Russia is one of the few places where HIV cases are increasing.
Putin’s coronavirus malpractice isn’t just the latest misery visited upon the Russian people; he also endangers the rest of the world. Remember the lessons of Chernobyl. The toxic nuclear cloud that the Soviet authorities pretended didn’t exist until it was over Sweden did not stop at the Soviet border. The artificially low coronavirus numbers kept Russia off most flight ban and mandatory quarantine lists as the pandemic spread, with hundreds of flights going in and out of the country.
The human cost would be beside the point to Putin, who cares only about sending the message that he is strong and in control. If you think that description also applies to President Trump’s recent news conferences, you wouldn’t be wrong. Trump’s tendency to echo autocratic rhetoric is well-established, and the pandemic is no exception. Having wasted precious weeks minimizing the threat, now Trump and his acolytes have started a drumbeat about returning to normal life by Easter — April 12! — in a rhetorical campaign that demands the false and immoral choice between saving lives and restoring economic growth.
Trump’s callousness about potential victims of the pandemic has been jarring, even by this president’s standards. A crisis means difficult choices, impossible decisions that must still be made. But valuing every life — including the elderly, the weak, the vulnerable — is one of the signal traits that distinguish democracies from dictatorships.
Many of the core elements of democracy are already under pressure from the virus itself. Public gatherings, including some elections, have been suspended. Privacy is readily abandoned for tracking apps that can help control the spread. Even the social media platforms that routinely tolerate offensive speech and foreign propaganda have moved quickly to take down misinformation about covid-19. Worthwhile measures in the short term could be used for bad ends in the wrong hands.
The pandemic will leave its mark, changing the world in ways big and small; we must unite to determine the kind of society we want to live in on the other side of it. While we battle to stop the virus from destroying our bodies, we must also hold dearly to our souls. America will outlast the coronavirus despite Trump, and it doesn’t have to become like him to do it.