Russian Anti-Vaccine Disinformation Campaign Backfires

In the last few weeks, the number of recorded COVID-19 cases has risen inexorably, with records broken day after day. By ordering most state organizations and private businesses to stop work for a week, except for those involved in maintaining critical infrastructure, the Kremlin hoped the trend could be reversed. But since the involuntary public holiday ended there has been little let-up in the infection rates.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov admitted Wednesday to reporters in Moscow that the authorities had expected the pandemic to end quickly. “At first we thought that the pandemic would end in six months — in a year. Now we see that we were wrong in our calculations. We will soon have two years of this pandemic, and so far, there is no end in sight,” he said.

The Kremlin is planning to launch a new domestic information campaign which will stress that life can only return to normal, and pandemic restrictions lifted, when more Russians are inoculated, according to Kommersant newspaper. The information campaign will also seek to counter anti-vaccine messaging, presumably when it targets Russians, say officials.

The newspaper quotes two Kremlin sources as saying the new public service information campaign will be overseen by aides of Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy chief of staff of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Kiriyenko is frequently called on by Putin to manage major domestic political initiatives and he was entrusted with overseeing Kremlin operations for the 2018 presidential election.

Last month, deputy parliamentary speaker Pyotr Tolstoy, a Putin ally, said publicly he feared the Kremlin was losing the information battle. He critiqued the government’s spotty information effort so far, saying on Russian television, “Unfortunately, we conducted an entire information campaign about the coronavirus in Russia incorrectly and completely lost.” Tolstoy added: “People have no trust to go and get vaccinated, this is a fact.”

Some commentators have suggested the low vaccine uptake can be linked to rising public mistrust of Putin, but some Russian sociologists see a more complex dynamic at play and they say a variety of factors are involved, from conspiracy theories to widespread distrust of Russia’s hospitals and medical facilities.

In a recent panel discussion hosted by OpenDemocracy, a political website based in Britain, Anna Temkina, a sociology professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, said the relationship between vaccination attitudes and politics is not clear cut, noting anti-Putin protesters were among the first to get inoculated.

“In Russia, many people are not vaccinated regardless of rumors, regardless of politics, but because they have had a traumatic experience of communicating with medical institutions,” Temkina said. “Many of us have such a negative experience of dealing with [Russian] medicine that we know that it is better not to go there at all. In addition, there is also an understanding that it is generally better not to approach any medical facility in an epidemic, since this is a source of infection,” she added.

Other sociologists, including Ekaterina Borozdina, a colleague of Temkina’s, says vaccine resistance has to be seen in an historical context. She says there has been a persistence bias against vaccines for decades. “Russians are in no rush to get vaccinated, even when it comes to fighting a pandemic and getting back to normal everyday life,” she said, speaking at the same panel discussion.

Borozdina says there’s a “mistrust of government institutions” and bureaucracy in general. “Even before the emergence of the pandemic about 45 percent of Russians failed to follow the recommended vaccination schedules for their children.”

Kremlin spokesperson Peskov admitted midweek that the government has not done enough to explain the importance of getting inoculated. Putin last week urged lawmakers to promote vaccination, saying, “People trust and listen to your advice and recommendations.”

Jamie Dettmer is VOA reporter. This article  is published courtesy of the Voice of America (VOA).