Indecisive authoritarians

Covid-19 data from Russia is a mixed bag: the number of new cases identified per day seems to have plateaued – well, almost – but the death count remains so suspiciously low that it’s impossible not to doubt the top line as well. This isn’t surprising, of course. What’s frustrating is the Kremlin’s inconsistency in fighting the infection.

Russia does lots of business with China and was becoming a major destination for Chinese tourists. Italy is a popular all-season tourism/shopping destination for the more affluent Russians, most of whom travel from or through Moscow.

These two facts would have justified cutting off all movements of humans to/from China, first, and to/from Italy and neighboring countries, second. In addition, travel between Moscow and other Russian cities should have been restricted. In fact, as early as February 1, Russia cut down on air traffic with China, but didn’t stop it completely. It was only from February 20 that Russia banned Chinese nationals from entering, making an exception for transit passengers. Eventually, Russia closed all borders to passenger traffic, but very belatedly, effective March 30.

My impression is that the Kremlin both realized the potential harm from Covid-19 and kept hoping that somehow it would remain a potentiality. The ancient Russian triad –  avos’, nebos’ i kak-nibud’ – in action.

So far, Russia has provided a useful counter-example to the conceit that authoritarian regimes are somehow better than liberal democracies at quarantining its citizens. Putin’s team fears drastic action at home: in their mental world, draconian measures might provoke popular unrest of unputdownable proportions. They would rather boil the frog slowly, a method that has so far worked fine for them in most situations but is impotent against Covid-19.

In addition, Beijing’s task early in 2020 was much easier that Moscow’s is now because the virus had originated in one known location, Wuhan, and there was little doubt about its deadly properties in the minds of Chinese decision-makers. Vietnam’s quarantine, I imagine, was much facilitated by the people’s apprehension of threats and dangers coming from the north.

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