Russia Protests: Is Covid-19 To Blame?
Featured Illustration by Alice Kirk

On January 23rd 2021, protests erupted across Russia and tensions have run high. The protests, in principle, are in support of opposition politician Alexei Navalny. However, the disdain for Putin as president has been high over the last few months as he has hit rock-bottom in the approval polls with his worst score ever, sitting around 53%. Russia has had 4.37 million Covid-19 cases and 88,285 confirmed deaths as of March 5th 2021. Could the handling of the pandemic have some part to play in the passionate protesting against President Putin?

The Economic Impact of Covid-19 in Russia

In Russia, as with everywhere else, unemployment has skyrocketed because of Covid-19. People believe that they are entitled to much more than the state is providing to them with state benefits not enough to feed a family. The national poverty rate in Russia has increased to 13.2% as a result of increasing unemployment and less-than-adequate support for those who find themselves in need of help from the government. This has naturally led to a lot more disdain for the President. 

The system in place has left many with very little. The average monthly salary in Russia is 43,030 roubles (£420.34) and the government promised anyone who has lost their job that they would be entitled to 12,130 roubles (£118.49) a month. However, this has not materialised because people need to have worked at the company for a minimum of 26 weeks. If they had not, they would only be entitled to a minimum benefit of 1500 roubles (£14.65) a month. The economic hardships which have been faced by the Russian people is obviously a core reason as to why Putin’s approval rating is the lowest it has been. According to Levada Centre, an independent polling agency, approval for the government, as a whole, is at 48%. Economic support has proven essential in a pandemic that has seen many lose their livelihoods which suggests why the support for the President has dropped so dramatically.

Misleading Figures?

Furthermore, there is strong evidence that Russia’s Covid-19 figures do not represent the full death toll. The Russian statistics agency, Rosstat, suggested that the death toll could be around as much as 180,000 when the official government released figure was 57,000 at the beginning of last month. The low death toll in Russia has been pushed by Putin despite the images of overcrowded hospitals and cemeteries which have been seen across the world. Rosstat predicted the death toll would make Russia the third hardest-hit country in the world after the US and Brazil, a title which it already has in terms of the number of recorded cases. Russia’s Covid-19 figures are possibly being manipulated by not recording all those who have died from the virus as having died from Covid-19.

The manipulation of the death figures also exposes a further weakness of the Russian government: their clear lack of transparency in other areas. This has led people to question their government much more ardently. The protests over Navalny’s arrest is simply further censorship as has been seen throughout the health crisis.

Putin’s virus bubble

People are also disappointed in the government because they feel that they are putting the population at risk. When the Russian public was encouraged to return to a more normal life in September, Putin continued to be strict on his own social contact. He left the house very little and when he did leave those who he encountered were instructed to quarantine. For example, he led a parade with very little social distancing from the public. The war veterans which he met in close proximity had to quarantine for two weeks before the event. The public saw that Covid-19 was still a threat. Yet, they were being asked to risk themselves for the sake of the economy. By treating himself differently to the public, Putin likely contributed to the already dwindling support for the government. People have turned their trust to Navalny who is seen as a much more down to earth and trustworthy alternative.

Did Putin have any success?

There have been positives in terms of Putin’s handling of the pandemic. Russia was the first country to announce a successful vaccine in the form of Sputnik V. Stage 3 trials of the vaccine, however, are not expected until May. Those involved in initial trials have found an immune response and have developed antibodies, so it is a positive development for fighting the negative aspects of the pandemic and the virus itself in Russia. On the 2nd February, it was found that the efficacy of Sputnik V is 91.6%. Therefore, despite the criticism that Russia received over the roll out of the vaccine before later trials were conducted, it is clear that the vaccine will be effective in slowing down the pandemic in Russia. 

Despite the successes of the vaccine, the Russian government has not done enough to help its population through the pandemic. In turn, pandemic poverty has led to a loss of faith in President Putin as shown by his lowering approval ratings. People are clearly angry that they have not been supported properly, particularly financially, through the pandemic. The protests, though starting with the issue of Navalny, can also be attributed to the public’s loss of faith in their government and a growing disdain for Putin as a leader. 


 This article has been written as part of a series on the protests in Russia.

Read the first in the series: “Russia Protests: Is Alexei Navalny the man to take down Putin?” by Georgie Andrews, here.