Russian President Vladimir Putin donning a bright yellow full-body hazmat suit and respirator as he visited a hospital on Moscow outskirts that is treating coronavirus patients, March 24, 2020
Soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address to the nation on Wednesday on the government’s coronavirus response and measures to be adopted to deal with the pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to him on the phone. The Indian and Russian readouts (here and here) have alike highlighted that the two leaders “agreed to strengthen coordination in the coronavirus response effort” (Kremlin).
The two countries are facing similar challenges. Having done very little by way of testing, the actual figures of coronavirus patients could be higher than the official estimate in Russia and India alike.
The total number of infected people as of today touched 840 in Russia, while the Indian figure has reached 660. Importantly, the figures are dramatically rising. There was a 28% jump in Russia since Wednesday.
Putin has admitted candidly that the outbreak is worse than what he had thought previously. The head of a top Moscow hospital treating coronavirus patients told Putin on Tuesday when he visited the patients undergoing treatment that Russia needs to “prepare for the Italian scenario.”
To a degree, the relatively low number of cases so far in both India and Russia can be attributed to an early ban on entry for Chinese citizens at the time the epidemic was at full swing in that country.
But India has been ahead of Russia in denying entry to all foreigners except diplomats and members of official delegations. It was only last week that Russia imposed such restrictions. Again, India shut down international flights earlier than Russia which announced the decision only today.
Both Indian and Russian authorities were inclined to project an upbeat view on the situation, claiming that all measures have been taken to prevent a bigger outbreak. But both have acknowledged lately that there is indeed a crisis looming ahead.
On Tuesday, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who leads a task force on dealing with the virus, told Putin at a meeting in the Kremlin that provincial governors must receive orders to move more quickly to ready hospital beds for the gravely ill. “Otherwise, the system won’t be able to cope,” he said.
Sobyanin has ordered all Moscow citizens over 65 to stay home starting Thursday. Construction of a new hospital for coronavirus patients that is being built from scratch is going on at breakneck speed in Moscow suburbs.
Basically, Russia suffers from the same disadvantages as India to cope with a big coronavirus crisis — underfunded healthcare system, paucity of hospital beds, shortage of protective gear for medical communities, grossly insufficient network of labs to conduct / analyse coronavirus tests and so on.
But the Russian system is better adapted to handle such crises. Sobyanin signed a decree today “to temporarily suspend … from 28 March to 5 April, the work of restaurants, cafes, canteens, buffets, bars, snack bars and other catering establishments, with the exception of takeaway services without citizens visiting the premises of such enterprises, as well as order delivery.”
Shops, except pharmacies and those selling essential goods, will suspend operation during this weeklong period. Sobyanin was almost apologetic: “The restrictions introduced today are unprecedented in the modern history of Moscow and will create many inconveniences in every person’s daily life. But, believe me, they are absolutely necessary to slow down the spread of the coronavirus infection and reduce the number of cases.”
The big question is whether these measures will suffice or Putin will also opt for a “total lockdown”, as Modi ordered on Tuesday. But then, Russia is a vast country spanning 9 time zones, and the Kremlin can always ramp up measures as cases grow. The regional imbalances are simply mind-boggling — between Moscow and St. Petersburg (European Russia) on the one hand and the Caucasus, Urals, Siberia or the Russian Far East (Asiatic Russia) on the other hand.
Having said that, the crucial difference is that Russia is a developed country in most ways in the social sector, thanks to the Soviet rule, whereas India is a developing country with a much lower level of social formation.
The mammoth population of India puts additional pressure on social sectors of the economy. Again, the structure of the Russian economy is very different. It has nothing comparable, for example, to India’s “informal sector” or “migrant labour” that infinitely add to the complexity of the present crisis.
Russia was all set to join the OECD when the Ukraine crisis erupted in 2014 and the European Union imposed sanctions. In fact, at that point in time, Russia had already signed on to some of the landmark OECD standards.
However, the raison d’être of the two countries’ desire to “to strengthen coordination in the coronavirus response effort” lies in their capacity to show a third way in addressing the present crisis.
Neither Russia nor India has followed China’s Wuhan model of “suppressing” the coronavirus and moving on to resuscitate the economy.
On the other hand, their humanistic traditions also do not allow the pitiless approach that US President Donald Trump espouses.
Both Russia and India stress “social distancing” as the key. PM Modi used a powerful metaphor from Ramayana which every Indian would understand, to drive home that one’s home is one’s ultimate citadel in these extraordinary times. Putin meant much the same thing when he said, “Don’t think: ‘This can’t happen to me.’ It can happen to anyone. The most important thing is to stay home.”
Putin announced paid leave for all Russians next week due to COVID-19. He announced, amongst other relief measures for the economy, that families eligible for maternity capital will receive an extra 5,000 rubles ($44.80) per month from the government for each child under 3 years old.
Small and midsized businesses will receive a six-month tax deferral. And those who lose their jobs or take sick leave will receive payments at minimum wage until the end of the year. The allowance for the unemployed has bene raised by 50 percent and brought on par with the prescribed minimum wage.
Today, Modi government also announced a massive $22 billion package of cash transfer and food security exclusively targeting the poor people.
Both Russian and Indian leaderships are acutely conscious of grim economic warnings for their countries. Both economies could shrink significantly in a worst case scenario. Nonetheless, both Putin and Modi have chosen to concentrate on socially sensitive clusters — pensioners and families with children in Russia, the teeming hundreds of millions of poor people in India.
One may say they stay true to their history as “populist” leaders. But this time around, it is far from an opprobrium.