Popular anger grows in Russia over Putin’s handling of covid-19 crisis 

Vladimir Putin address Russian TV about Covid-19 crisis, 25 March (Photo: Wikimedia/CC)

The deep crisis in Russia arising from both the ‘oil war’ and the covid-19 pandemic will soon be widely felt. However, Russia is not ready for it. According to analysts, the consequences of the crisis will be worse than in 1998 and 2008, and most likely the scale will be comparable to the crisis of 1992 when the country’s GDP fell by 14.5%. However, the full consequences of the crisis for Russia can be clarified only after the end of the self-isolation regime. 

In anticipation of the crisis, the capitalist bosses are already firing thousands of employees. A large number of companies have already begun to go bankrupt. With the spread of covid-19, the situation is no better. In a TV appeal on April 13, Putin admitted that the situation with coronavirus is not changing for the better, as every day the growth of infected people is breaking records. Why did this happen and how could Putin’s oligarchy allow it?

As in other European countries, the Russian government did not do anything until the last minute to take decisive measures to counter the spread of the disease. Only on 27 March, regular and charter flights were stopped, while, at the same time, the remaining Russian tourists were taken home. From the very beginning, it became clear that the authorities can neither provide hospitals with equipment nor provide the population with protective equipment. The only thing the government is able to do is to lie to everyone about ‘social guarantees’ and to convince everyone to stay at home under pain of heavy fines. On 25 March, Putin announced a non-working week, but then it was extended until the end of the month. In addition, on 30 March, the government urged regional authorities to introduce self-isolation regimes.

Medicine and health needs

Shortly before the arrival of the covid-19, medical personnel numbers were cut in Russia. A huge number of doctors were fired under the pretext of improving the health system. What this ‘optimisation’ led to can be seen today. In many hospitals where patients with coronavirus are located, there are no lung ventilation devices, not enough protective equipment, and in some hospitals, there is a shortage of medical personnel. Since the state is not able to solve the problem with ventilators, owners of 3D printers decided to help. Throughout the country, they decided to voluntarily print spare parts for mechanical ventilation and protective equipment. However, again, not everyone decided to do it voluntarily – some producers decided to repeatedly increase the prices of their products.

In March, the test for Covid-19 in Russia was produced by only a few laboratories. It is easy to imagine what kind of blockage occurred after the outbreak. Then, only relatively recently, it was decided to mass-create laboratories for testing for the coronavirus. Despite this, few people are getting the tests done. According to the widow of a recently deceased resident of Yakutia, they refused to do tests for covid-19 and sent him to be tested in a private clinic, where the cost of testing is 100 dollars – a lot of money for most Russians.

How the capitalists responded

According to federal law, the self-isolation regime assumes the absence of any social guarantees. But according to the law, the employer is obliged to pay full wages, and to give protective equipment to employees working during the self-isolation period. However, the capitalists do not care; in this situation, they decide to protect their profits, in particular, this is also because no responsibility for violation is established. Businesses, for the most part, sabotaged the ‘non-working’ week, forcing workers to go to work, and, in most cases, people worked without any means of protection. According to estimates by the Russian business journal, RBC, 64% of Russian workers worked during the so-called non-working week. According to the Centre for Strategic Research, nearly 30% of companies have forced workers to take unpaid leave, more than 20% of enterprises reduced their salaries, and 16% switched to lay-offs. That is, only 6% of Russian companies were conscientious towards employees and followed the “urgent advice” of the government.

Naturally, the capitalists do not care about the distribution of covid-19 throughout the country. “Moya hata s krayu” (It doesn’t concern me) and “Avos’ pronyesyot” (Count on luck), as the Russian sayings go! After the introduction of a non-working week, Russian businesses immediately began shouting about falling profits. And despite the fact that the regional authorities have already begun to introduce large restrictions, and the situation with the increase in the incidence rate is getting worse, Putin completely complied with the interests of business. He stated during a meeting after the quarantine week, that “all conditions must be created so that companies, organisations, entrepreneurs return to their normal work schedule. “

How workers responded

Due to the lack of independent trade unions and a mass labour party, workers are held back from responding to mass job layoffs. Self-isolation also prevents workers from uniting as normal. Workers were extremely dissatisfied with the introduced measures of self-isolation; few are able to withstand the monthly isolation of the house. Opinions on restrictive measures were divided. Some believe that the reaction to covid-19 is exaggerated, while others are outraged by insufficient restriction measures. For many people, introducing self-isolation for all citizens of the country may be seen as illogical; at the same time, it was illogical to introduce this regime only in words. It was counterproductive to cut the number of doctors; it was a blunder to close the air borders so late, and, most importantly, it was scandalous not to have any existing normal plan for such an event.

Temporary workers and migrants were in one of the worst situations. Many of them lost their jobs due to the shutdown of workplaces and were unable to leave for their homes, in time. Among them, crime has risen sharply, which is why migrants are again more negatively treated. The most severe reductions in income hit young workers, most of whom were temporary workers. However, at the same time, it was young people who were most prepared for the crisis. According to statistics, almost every young person in the country has savings and does not trust loans. Younger people grew up in the endless economic crises of 1998, 2009 and 2015, and are well aware of what capitalism is.

How can the population protect themselves?

To protect people, the government tightened up on fines; the police stop everyone who does not wear a medical mask and is ‘aimlessly’ walking around the streets. Despite the fact that, according to the Minister of Industry and Trade, Denis Manturov, eight million masks are produced per day, there is still an acute shortage of medical masks throughout the country. If you manage to buy them, then it is at extremely high prices. On average, capitalist producers overestimate the prices of masks by almost two times; antitrust services basically do nothing about this.

The situation with the quarantine of public places in the country is different. Despite the fact that the number of infected in the country is increasing, after 5 April, two-thirds of the regions eased restrictions. Some regions, on the other hand, strengthened measures. In Bashkiria, a curfew was imposed for people over 65 years old. In Yakutia, another two districts were completely self-isolated and some regions imposed restrictions on movement. Thus, restrictions are being imposed by regional and city authorities, not the government. The government simply decided to shift most of the responsibility to local officials, and with this the Kremlin’s credibility in the eyes of both workers and regional elites is falling.

A fairly large number of workers switched to remote working, just like the school children who began to study remotely due to quarantine. Distance working and training was touted as ‘progress’ and ‘advanced’ in the field of IT. Someone even spoke about the need to completely replace the traditional school with distance learning. However, the ‘delights’ of distance working and learning have a negative side. Teachers were obliged to buy cameras and microphones themselves, which led to shortages of cameras and microphones in small towns. Many people also simply do not know how to work with Skype. The quality of communication is often far from perfect. For example, in the north of Yakutia, where internet connection has always been very poor, children were forced to go back to school again, being assured that there is no danger of infection in the Arctic regions. That might seem alright if the coronavirus had not managed to penetrate even into Greenland!

Anti-virus measures

What measures are being taken for ordinary citizens? The government increased unemployment benefits to 12,130 roubles, calling it an anti-crisis measure. In Russia, this is not even enough to pay the rent. Among workers, there are more calls for a state of emergency in the country, which would provide more social guarantees from the government. However, by law, the state is not obliged to pay all employees a salary during an emergency. We are being told only about vague “social payments and compensations”, which are unlikely to be anything big. 

The state of emergency is likely to be profitable for small businesses, which will be released from obligations. But this will not apply to large businesses, so it is unlikely that the emergency will be fully introduced at all. In general, the state makes every effort to minimise its obligations to provide social guarantees during the crisis and quarantine. Such a policy is not surprising: to save as much as possible on the needs of workers and dependants and, at the same time, to tax them as much as possible; that is the essence of the modern neoliberal policy of the Russian oligarchy. 

The fact that the action of the Russian government is dictated by large business, both domestic and foreign, is crystal clear. The list of selected key organisations that the state will save in the event of a crisis has been updated. The list was created during the crisis in 2008 and was updated during the currency crisis of 2015. It has been almost tripled compared to 2015. However, if earlier the list included state-owned strategically important enterprises, now it includes such companies as the Fonbet bookmaker and large foreign companies, like IKEA, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Burger King, Nestle plus the Baltika Brewery and the state corporation Rusnano (a corrupt offspring of the oligarch Chubais, widely known for his nonfunctioning nanotechnology developments). How can a country live without cola, hamburgers and invisible technologies!

Class consciousness grows

With the advent of a crisis, the class consciousness of workers always grows. According to Levada Center polls, over the past two years, Putin’s rating has hit rock bottom. At present, only 29% are sympathetic to Putin and 38% of Russians believe that the president expresses the interests of oligarchs and merchants. For the first time since Putin’s reign began, Russians believe that Putin now expresses the interests of the oligarchs more than the state security officers.

Massive non-compliance with the rights of workers, mass layoffs – all this forces workers to rally and look for an alternative to the existing exploitative system. According to statistics, in 2019 the number of labour conflicts increased sharply. Real Marxist ideas are becoming popular again and a new left mood is challenging ‘Soviet’ conservatism. 

A mass workers’ party, with bold socialist policies, could really help the working class cope with the crisis. But in a situation where usually opportunists and ‘revanchists’ – those who want to recreate monolithic Stalinist parties – are associated with a ‘workers’ party’, and when there is a distorted idea of ​​Marxism and Marxists, it is difficult for a genuine mass party of the working class to develop. The traditional “Communist Party” is not in a position to play the necessary role. Moreover, it is on a leash that is held by the Kremlin. The Communist Party has lost any real influence among working people and is losing more seats in parliament with every election. Only a real workers’ party can truly protect the interests of workers from the arbitrariness of officials and capitalists.

 Nearly all leading political scientists and economists recognise the strong blow being dealt to the neo-liberal economy, as a result of the global pandemic. It is understandable; covid-19 has brought out the sore spots of capitalism throughout the world. Moreover, the pandemic has, so far, hit harder where capitalism is more developed – namely, in more industrialised countries. In conditions when it is necessary to observe restrictions in order to save as many lives as possible, the capitalist saves as much profit as possible! And sooner or later, this will come back to hit big business. 

Experience has shown that the epidemic ends faster in those countries where the state has more control over business, and where it is able to better control the situation, introducing greater restrictions and providing people with protective equipment. This, in principle, is completely impossible in the conditions of the dictatorship of capital. Only the power of the workers – a working-class democracy – is able to develop a clear plan of action, to conduct coordinated and thoughtful activities to stop the pandemic.



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