A Pandemic of Mutual Mistrust
How does one handle an epidemic when conspiration theories are given space in national television and when politicians and doctors alike deny the existence of the virus? Liza Aleksandrova Zorina, Russian author and human rights activist, describes how suspicion divides a nation and makes it all the harder to tackle the spread of the corona virus. “Russia can become a new Wuhan,” she warns.
Russia is pervaded with the atmosphere of mutual mistrust. The authorities mistrust the people, because they fear protests and popular discontent while at the same time pretending that nothing serious is happening. The people mistrust the authorities and the opposition alike, also the medics and the media, while eagerly listening to all sorts of conspiracy theories: from complete denial of coronavirus’ existence to complete confidence in its origin as a biological weapon intended to destroy Russia.
Psychologically it is easier for people to ascribe incomprehensible and disturbing phenomena to someone’s evil intent. Moreover, conspiracy theories have been widely discussed on major TV channels and proclaimed from official platforms, which aggravates the situation even more. At the same time, events in Europe and the USA were employed by Russian propaganda for their own purposes when in Russia itself the epidemic was already starting to spread. Pro-Kremlin journalists were fanning the flames of the informational war by persuading people that there was no virus and that the panic was created in the West with the sole aim of bringing down the oil prices and our national currency.
By the time the epidemic in Russia broke out the situation in Italy and France was already catastrophic. And when Russia closed its borders lots of Russian citizens found themselves trapped abroad. Their initial reaction to the pandemic had been joy that the airfare and hotel prices had gone down. Many people took the opportunity and rushed to the places which were in fact epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the frightening news from other countries, they simply did not believe in the virus.
“You’ve just come back from Europe, did you see any coronavirus victims there?” One lady asked me.
“Personally I didn’t.” I reassured her thinking she was afraid I might be carrying the infection.
“That’s what I thought. This virus is a fiction. There’s nothing of the sort.”
Conspiracy theories were spread not only by laymen in their social networks but also by journalists, TV presenters, political scientists, and public figures. In the Caucasian republic of Northern Ossetia a famous opera singer organized a meeting protesting against “the authorities’ inventions about coronavirus” and called upon people to sabotage the regime of self-isolation, to refuse to wear face masks and ignore the prohibition to assemble in big crowds, and the ban on leaving the republic and visit the neighboring regions. A well-known Moscow journalist, who repeatedly wrote that the authorities created panic for nothing in order to manipulate public consciousness and suppress protest actions, ended up being hospitalized with a grave case of coronavirus.
Even some medics were skeptical about coronavirus. For instance, an emergency doctor, who came to examine one journalist suspecting she had coronavirus infection and pneumonia, said in fact, “I don’t believe this coronavirus actually exists. It’s just a lot of nonsense.” She was taken to the hospital nevertheless where a nurse told her: “There’s no such thing as this coronavirus. It has been invented by the Americans.”
Even when some Moscow hospitals were repurposed for coronavirus treatment with long lines of ambulances waiting outside to deliver their patients, lots of people were still not convinced. “Where are the sick, show me at least one.” “Show me the dead.” “Give me their names.” “Now they’ll write off all the dead to coronavirus.” “Medics want to write off their budgets of million rubles to the coronavirus epidemic, and so they use all sorts of tricks.” “The authorities simply want to keep us locked up and so they invented this epidemic.”
People’s confusion was understandable: what with one TV channel broadcasting news from Europe about thousands of deaths a day while another channel showed a discussion of experts suggesting that the virus was in fact created by the US military as a biological weapon against China (or Iran, or Russia); and a third channel presented an eminent analyst, who assured viewers that coronavirus is a myth intended to sow panic in Europe, curtail democratic institutions and establish military dictatorships. The internet was full of stories that coronavirus had been specially developed so that all people could be chipped. Meanwhile our authorities kept silent, and they did so for quite a long time, as if the pandemic had nothing to do with Russia.
Since the Chernobyl disaster (1986) nothing much has changed in our country: whatever happens, be it the 2019 nuclear explosion near Nenoksa (on the White Sea coast) or the current coronavirus pandemic, the government first pretends there is nothing wrong and accuses the anti-Russian propaganda and the opposition of spreading fake news. And after much time has been lost they urgently start taking belated measures. But then people regard the government’s intentions with mistrust and society falls into two categories: those who believe that the catastrophe is a fiction, and those who think that the actual situation is in fact far more catastrophic that the authorities admit.
Long before officially recognized cases of coronavirus became known, there appeared in Moscow separate wards for pneumonia patients. It was clear that those patients actually had the coronavirus disease. Otherwise, how can you explain a sudden epidemic of pneumonia requiring guarded wards with intensive therapy, which were so overflowing with patients that beds had to be placed in the corridors.
When finally the President acknowledged the pandemic and was even shown on TV visiting a viral ward, the role of the patient he was talking to was performed by one of the doctors. Several days before Putin’s visit the doctor was hospitalized with a serious case of pneumonia, but had a miraculous and speedy recovery. He was not diagnosed with coronavirus. Typically, when Putin talks to “ordinary people” in public their roles are played by secret service dummies, often the same persons. Today such performances provoke even greater mistrust. What if their hospitals are all fakes too?
During the last month in Russia the daily number of new victims stayed put while the mortality was lower 7.4 times compared to that in other countries. Russian authorities know how to manipulate statistics – they simply omit indicating coronavirus as the primary cause of death. However, it has been a tricky job to conceal huge mortality rate among the medics. Everybody knows that official figures have been dictated from above, and they have been not just somewhat distorted – they simply have nothing to do with reality. This fact inspires quite different reactions among people. Some people panic suspecting that the real number of victims must be twice or three times higher in fact while other people, on the contrary, become convinced that the pandemic is pure fiction and coronavirus is harmless.
Medics all over the world, including Russia, are lacking the most essential equipment. But perhaps only in Russia it is dangerous to mention the fact. Taking the opportunity the State Duma passed a number of new laws to limit the spread of fake news, which creates panic about coronavirus and other epidemics, natural disasters and technological catastrophes. This ban has created even greater panic and people are increasingly convinced that the real situation is being concealed from them and the epidemic is only a pretext to impose stricter censorship. The punishment ranges from a considerable fine to a three-to-five-year jail sentence.
In practice, as is usual in Russia, the new law resulted in the prosecution of journalists, public activists, and ordinary citizens with their witness accounts in the social networks of the desperate situation in their regional hospitals. Some doctors have already been summoned for interrogation. Russia has a vast territory so that even the independent media can’t keep track of all the news. However, the social networks give you a chance to learn about what is happening in the provinces and national republics. E.g., you learn that in the Northern Caucasus the doctors have no masks and gloves, and the residents collect money to obtain some, the women make masks at home, and medics travel to other regions in search of protective gear. The local authorities in the Perm Territory, in the Lipetsk and Belgorod Regions collect donations because they are unable to cope with the shortages. These facts contradict official information that the hospitals have been provided with all they need. Such a publication in the social networks may cost their authors three years in prison.
When the government of Moscow, a multi-million city and the epicenter of the epidemic, finally came round to taking the required measures, however belated, a new wave of mistrust arose. The regime of movement restrictions was announced whereby people were obliged to obtain special passes to move about the city (naturally, it did not concern deputies, government officials, law enforcement men, etc.) It is put in effect with the help of security cameras, face-detection technologies, patrols, bank transactions information, geo-tagging, and mobile surveillance. You can leave your house only to go to the nearest pharmacy or food shop. For other travels you need to apply to the mayor’s office for a personal one-time QR-code. Each resident has the right to make only two trips a week. And this is not only in the absence of an official quarantine regime which the authorities hesitate to announce, there are no laws allowing them to take such measures.
There are 178,000 cameras installed in Moscow alone, but in certain areas there are none at all – these are the residential areas for the political and business elite.
We have always been aware that the authorities keep an eye on us: for instance, rallies participants are quickly found thanks to security cameras. But we never knew how readily this system could be applied to the entire population of the multi-million megalopolis. Mass surveillance has no legal foundation, but already in 2017 the authorities were quietly experimenting with face-detection technologies, and in 2020 the coronavirus epidemic gave them carte-blanche to use it.
It goes without saying that Russia is not the only country to resort to such measures. Suffice it to mention Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea, who are successfully coping with the pandemic. But in the case of Russia it is really dangerous to create a precedent allowing the authorities to introduce mass surveillance and all sorts of restrictions without a sufficient legal basis for them. When the epidemic is over they may continue to use them, and not only against public activists and the opposition, but also against millions of the unemployed citizens, who had been left without any means of subsistence and no assistance from the state. Fearing discontent and riots the Kremlin may very well institute control over the impoverished population instead of providing them with benefits or basic incomes.
It should be admitted that Russians are not very self-disciplined people, but their sloppiness derives in part from mistrust of the authorities and disrespect of the law. Since the bureaucracy and our tycoons openly ignore the law, rank-and-file citizens also try to circumvent the law whenever they can. For Russians the law means tiresome prohibitions and annoying limitations just to spoil their lives.
So, on the one hand, one can understand why the authorities have to impose restrictions and serious punishments: what with the numerous “protest movements” that don’t believe in the pandemic and call upon people to boycott the quarantine measures. But on the other hand, people suspect, and not without reason, that the epidemic is just a pretext to tighten the screws even more. Whereas the Russian public health system turned out to be unprepared for the epidemic, the Russian authorities, on the contrary, were in full combat readiness and managed to put into effect an unprecedented system of control and surveillance in less than a week. The bad thing is that after the coronavirus is gone the censorship and total control will remain.
The authorities are afraid that in view of the economic and political crisis in the country the epidemic might set off protests which have been brewing for some time now. People mistrust the government, and the medics, and one another. This unhealthy atmosphere of all-round mistrust exacerbates the already complex social situation.
Russians famously boast about their special role in the world: we are not Europe, we are not Asia: we follow our own path. This coronavirus epidemic shows that we are indeed pursuing our own path: bypassing Asian discipline and European social organization. We lack state control which now boils down to police regulation and supreme power of the secret services; and neither do we have people’s solidarity, self-organization, and grassroots democracy. This may produce unwelcome consequences, not only for Russia but for the world as well: Russia might become a new Wuhan, which will result in social catastrophe, chaos and uncontrolled panic, precisely what the Kremlin so fears.