Russia moves toward nationwide lockdown to fight virus

Jake Rudnitsky and Henry Meyer

Russia moved toward a lockdown across the world’s largest country by area on Monday to try and halt the spread of coronavirus, following Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s order for residents to stay in their homes.

Heads of all Russia’s regions should adopt similar restrictions as those announced in the capital and surrounding areas, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said at a televised meeting with deputy premiers. President Vladimir Putin later defended the tough actions as “justified.”

Moscow’s 12.7 million people were ordered to stay home starting Monday, with limited exceptions for emergencies, in the strictest measures yet imposed in a major Russian city. The restrictions will run through April 3 and any extension will depend on how the situation develops, Moscow’s anti-coronavirus task force said. Confirmed infections in Moscow jumped by a fifth overnight to 1,226 and make up two-thirds of the country’s total of 1,836 cases. Nine people in Russia have died from coronavirus, according to official data.

Sobyanin warned in a website statement that the expansion of the virus in Europe’s largest capital city “has entered a new phase.” He said the authorities will shortly introduce passes to permit movements outside the home in the coming days, with a “smart system” of remote monitoring to ensure compliance.

Other than for emergency medical reasons or work obligations, residents will be allowed to walk outside their homes only to visit their nearest food store or pharmacy, to take out trash, or to take pet animals within 100 meters of their buildings. While outside, people will be required to maintain a distance of at least 1.5 meters from others.

The lock-down comes after Sobyanin ordered last week non-essential businesses to close to slow the spread of the illness. He has been among Russia’s most vocal proponents of tough restrictions to counter coronavirus in a crisis that has undermined the Kremlin’s ability to get its message out clearly.

“Movement in the city is down by two-thirds and that’s very good,” Sobyanin said in the statement. “But it’s obvious that far from everyone has heard our message.”

The World Health Organization’s representative in Russia complained at the weekend that Muscovites were flouting the authorities’ advice to stay home and keep “social distancing.” The capital was packed with people out on the streets in warm spring weather on Saturday and other regions saw a sudden influx of Moscow residents taking advantage of a week-long paid time off decreed by Putin.

Nikolai Malyshev, a leading infectious diseases specialist in the Health Ministry, warned on state TV last week that Russia is readying itself for an “explosive development like a nuclear reaction” with the coronavirus epidemic. In the near future, “large numbers of people will fall ill and need medical treatment,” he said.

Sobyanin said people will still be able to leave or enter Moscow but the new rules are aimed at restricting “moving around the city without any reason.”

Non-Working Week

Putin announced in a March 25 national address that this week will be a non-working one. But he didn’t commit to any drastic measures limiting movement, instead promising benefits to get companies and individuals through the crisis. After signs that many Russians had interpreted the measure as an opportunity to take vacation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday that the president’s statement was really an order to work from home.

Putin’s top public health official, Anna Popova, as recently as last Monday ruled out locking down the capital, while Sobyanin pushed a harder line the following day, warning the president that the number of reported cases of the coronavirus understated the problem.

While its total number of declared cases is still low by comparison with many other countries, Russia has been adopting progressively stricter measures against coronavirus in the past week. The government halted all international flights as of Friday and Mishustin called on regions to close most businesses, while stopping short of ordering them to do so. The government closed all of Russia’s land borders effective Monday.

Russia is also mobilizing the army to help battle the epidemic, and the Defense Ministry announced plans to build 16 hospitals to treat coronavirus patients around the country by mid-May.