Many countries are taking first steps on compulsory vaccination in some jobs. France’s Parliament adopted a law Monday requiring the jab among health-care workers. In the United States, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced it would mandate coronavirus vaccines for its front-line workers, becoming the first federal agency to make the order.
Russia, however, appears to be pressing faster and harder than many nations to tie the vaccine to getting a paycheck.
In Moscow, several hundred people protested mandatory vaccines Monday at a communist-led rally. Similar demonstrations have been mounted recently in places including Greece, India and France.
Russian authorities appear squarely behind the measures that have taken shape in recent weeks: threats of harsh punishments for employers in retail and service businesses, such as transportation and restaurants, that fail to have at least 60 percent of their workers vaccinated, and of suspension for workers who refuse vaccines.
Many employers, particularly in small and medium-sized business, gripe that Russian authorities have simply passed the buck — handing responsibility for vaccination effort on businesses, when it should belong to the state in a time of growing crisis.
A surge in the coronavirus — mostly the delta variant — has brought more than 23,000 new cases and almost 800 deaths a day recently.
Although President Vladimir Putin keeps saying vaccines should not be mandatory, the effect for many Russians is just that.
“The not-very-rapid vaccination pace is among the reasons why we have so far been unable to radically contain the spread of the disease,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday.
A survey by the Moscow-based research and employment agency Superjob on July 21 found 55 percent of Russians were opposed to mandatory vaccination. A survey by the agency July 13, found that 31 percent of Russians were not willing to vaccinated under any circumstances, while 26 percent would only do so if they were forced to as a condition to keep working or get hired.
Other countries have seen strong vaccine resistance for similar reasons: swerves in official messaging and disinformation circulating on social media.
Russians’ long-standing mistrust of authorities may also play a role. From the beginning of the pandemic, most Russians were distrustful of state statistics on the pandemic, according to polls in March and April by the independent Levada Center and Higher School of Economics.
In late June, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin ordered employers in key service and retail industries to ensure at least 60 percent of staff were fully vaccinated by mid-August, and dozens of other provinces followed suit. At that time, 11 percent of Russians had been vaccinated with two shots, according to official figures, even though Russian vaccines are free and have long been widely available.
Now, 16 percent have had two shots, compared with more than 49 percent in the United States and nearly 56 percent in Britain.
Retail and service companies who fail to meet the target could be shut down for months or fined. Yet some employers in the taxi and ride-share industry and food outlets have struggled still with low vaccination rates.
Many employers have called on authorities to shift back deadlines or cut the 60 percent target. Some regions have pushed deadlines back.
In other restrictions, some universities have barred unvaccinated students from dormitory accommodation. Dmitry Nesvetov, head of the Moscow branch of small- and medium-sized business association OPORA, said most employers believed the government should be responsible for meeting vaccination targets, not business.
“Of course employers do not think it’s their job. Of course they think that this is the job of the government and authorities,” he said.
Nesvetov said it was extremely difficult for employers to meet the 60 percent target. Those who faced the greatest difficulty were small businesses with fewer than 30 workers.
“You don’t have a lot of tools to convince them or pressure them” to get vaccinated, he said. “You can try to talk to them and explain the consequences. You can use some kind of bonuses or grants to encourage them. Or you can use threats. You can suspend them or send them on vacation without pay, but you cannot fire them.”
A spokesman for one Moscow ride-share company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer comments critical of the government, said the vaccine deadlines were “really tough,” forcing employers to buy vaccines and set up their own vaccination points.
The spokesman said the government has resorted to “frightening businesses with fines and suspension of activities.”
Another ride-share company, Citimobil, said in a statement it had bought 5,000 doses of vaccines for foreign drivers. The company offers prizes to drivers who get vaccinated, including a car raffle.
A human resources manager at one Moscow company said it missed an interim July 22 deadline for 60 percent of employees to have the first shot.
“It’s the middle of the summer and many people are simply on vacation and we can’t make them drop their travel plans and kids and come back to get vaccinated in this time frame,” said the manager who declined to be named. “We hope that the difficulties we had will somehow be taken into account if there are some sort of checks.”
She said the company had not yet suspended anyone but would do so next month, if staff refused vaccination for no good reason.
A July 13 survey by Superjob reported that 20 percent of workers knew of someone in their organization who was fired or suspended for refusing the vaccine.
Valeria Slivka, spokeswoman for popular cafe chain Shokoladnitsa, said the company managed to get 76 percent of workers vaccinated.
“Our top management inspired and motivated the staff by their example. The heads got vaccinated, filmed the process on video and shared it on our internal portal, setting a positive example to all employees of the company,” she said.
A major opportunity to allay Russians’ fears was missed when Putin got vaccinated in March, later issuing a brief announcement with no TV video.
According to the Ministry of Industry and Trade, Moscow food chains had managed to persuade on average 25 percent of employees to get vaccinated, Kommersant newspaper reported, citing a July 12 government meeting. The Association of Retail Trade Companies which includes major supermarkets, cited problems, including staff shortages caused by leave and low supplies of vaccines in many regions.
Still, many employers decided it was better to do their best to comply with the government demands.
“Even though it’s not great,” said the business group head Nesvetov, “it’s still better than a lockdown.”
Natasha Abbakumova and Mary Ilyushina contributed to this report.