MOSCOW: Medics wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) work in the intensive care unit for COVID-19 coronavirus patients in the Moscow Sklifosovsky emergency hospital. - AFP

MOSCOW: Russian authorities said yesterday that doctors were under "extraordinary" strain due to surging coronavirus cases in Europe's worst-hit country, with Moscow shuttered during a nationwide holiday to curb infections. The capital was quiet on the first morning of the working week, with businesses mostly closed and non-essential services in the capital halted from October 28 to November 7.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that doctors working in red zones were facing "extreme physical and emotional stress" with the recent rise in cases. "Of course the situation is not straightforward. Beds are filled to a large extent, and these days the situation is not becoming easier," Peskov said. "This is an excessive and extraordinary burden on our doctors, who are demonstrating heroism with what is happening," he added. Russia is one of the worst-hit countries in the world and a devastating wave this autumn has seen infections and deaths reach new records, with more than 1,000 fatalities per day.

A government tally recorded 40,402 new infections and 1,155 deaths yesterday, figures that in both cases were just shy of records set over recent days. Russia has rolled out several homegrown vaccines including Sputnik V but only about a third of the population is fully innoculated. The Kremlin said last week it hoped the paid holiday period would help stabilize Russia's outbreak and cautioned people against travelling, after surveys showed some 30 percent of Russians intended to travel.

Ex-president and former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev warned in the Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily Monday there were was an urgent need to increase vaccination rates. "If we do not find ways to convince people of their irresponsibility, even, to put it bluntly, their anti-social behavior, we will face even more difficult times," he said. Authorities have been accused of downplaying the pandemic and figures from statistics agency Rosstat last week showed nearly twice as many COVID deaths compared with the government tally. Rosstat said 44,265 people died of coronavirus in September - nearly double the official government figure, bringing the agency's total virus toll to nearly 450,000, the highest in Europe.

Sputnik jab

Some call it "experimental", some don't trust the government, some even buy fake certificates-as their country sees a record coronavirus surge, Russians are proving stubbornly resistant to the country's Sputnik V vaccine. Russia is among the countries worst-hit by the COVID pandemic and a devastating wave this autumn has seen infections and deaths reach new records, with more than 1,000 fatalities per day.

But while the country has several locally produced vaccines including Sputnik V, only about a third of its population has been inoculated. With global coronavirus fatalities soon set to top five million, the scepticism of Russians underlines the difficulties that remain in the global fight against COVID. Sputnik V was announced with great fanfare last year by President Vladimir Putin as the first registered coronavirus vaccine and is freely available at clinics and vaccination centers across the country.

Meant as a showcase for Russian science that would quickly turn the page on the pandemic in the country, it has failed to win over the public, with polls showing fewer than half of people planning to get vaccinated. For Russians like Vyacheslav, a 52-year-old businessman, the government has given them no reason to have confidence in the vaccine. "The authorities lie to us on all sorts of subjects. Why should we believe them on vaccination?" he asked, his sports bag on his knees as he prepared for a swim at a Moscow pool. "I have no trust," he said, declining to give his last name.

'It's suspicious'

Even some of those who have contracted COVID, like Svetlana Zhetlukhina, are still refusing to get jabbed. "It's an experimental vaccine," said the 54-year-old financial analyst, adding there is not yet enough "scientific data" on Sputnik V. "I am not a monkey." Like elsewhere, Russia has its share of diehard anti-vaxxers. But beyond those who oppose all vaccines, there are "a big number of Russians who distrust the people who made this vaccine and the Russian government", said anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova.

"They think that we cannot expect anything good from the government... and that our laboratories are incapable of producing aspirin, let alone a good vaccine," she said. Tamara Alexeyeva, an elegant 67-year-old retiree, said the Kremlin's claims of Sputnik's alleged superiority over Western vaccines have fed her scepticism. "They want us to believe that we have the best scientists in the world, like the USSR," she said, walking briskly towards a Metro station. "But me, I will never accept this so-called vaccine."

Sputnik V has been administered to millions of people and both its effectiveness and safety have been confirmed by respected medical journal The Lancet.But it has not yet won approval from the World Health Organization or the European Medicines Agency-another fact that is feeding concern among Russians. "It's suspicious," said Vyacheslav, his eyebrows furrowing. Putin's government has been pinning its hopes on vaccines and has shied away from the kind of severe lockdowns imposed in many countries.

'Win back confidence'

But with current policies failing to reduce cases, authorities have imposed a nationwide non-working week from October 30 to November 7. Mandatory jabs have also been required for some service workers and there are increasing moves towards requiring vaccination certificates for public venues. But sceptical Russians are finding ways around that too, with a thriving market in fake COVID passes.

Alexander, a 45-year-old entrepreneur, said he preferred to spend 5,500 rubles ($80, 70 euros) to get a false certificate instead of a free vaccine, and knows "a lot of people" who have done the same. The Kremlin has put out increasingly desperate calls for Russians to get vaccinated, with Putin in mid-October asking them to "please, show responsibility". Authorities face an uphill battle. According to sociologist Stepan Goncharov of independent pollster Levada, surveys show the number of people opposed to being vaccinated-"between 50 and 55 percent"-has been steady for months.

The Kremlin "needs to win back people's confidence" if it wants to prevail in the vaccination battle, he said, by putting in place a "more coherent policy" after months of vacillating between warnings and inaction. With hospitalizations on the rise and Russia's health system stretched, doctors say the best ambassadors for vaccination may be those who are treated for serious cases of COVID. - AFP