Who do you trust?

Why Russia's flagging Covid vaccine program isn't Putin's fault

According to the FT’s global vaccine tracker, some 32.8 million Covid-19 vaccine doses have made their way into the shoulders of Russian citizens — or just 22.7 per 100 residents. By comparison, the UK has administered 106.8 doses per 100, the US 93.2.

Source: Financial Times

By any measure, that has to be a disappointing result, not least for a country that has a reasonably well functioning medical system and had an approved Covid-19 vaccine available months before anyone else in the world. But for once, at least, I’m not convinced the Kremlin should take the blame.

Indeed, Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine was given emergency approval in August 2020 and was rolled out to much domestic fanfare — and to not a small amount of international skepticism, given the Russian government’s decision to forego Phase 3 trials — but by the time the UK approved its first vaccine in December, Russia’s vaccination campaign was already flagging. By January 2021, researchers were ringing alarm bells. Alexei Zakharov, a behavioral economist at the Higher School of Economics, found in a survey that some 58% of eligible Russians were unwilling to be vaccinated. In May, the Levada Center found a similar result: despite a state-backed campaign to encourage people to get the shot, only 10% said they had already been vaccinated, a measly 26% said they intended to, and 62% were opposed to the idea.

So, what gives? To be clear, looking for a single explanation for the behavior of tens of millions of people is worse than a fool’s errand: it’s bad social science. Different people will have different reasons for not wanting the vaccine, and even then, most people do the things they do for a combination of reasons. (Can you name the one reason you’re reading this right now? Hell, I can’t even name the one reason I’m writing it.) But there are patterns, and they can be meaningful. Thus, both Zakharov and the Levada Center find that vaccine skepticism is higher among young people, among women and among the less educated.

But that’s not all. Zakharov found back in January that vaccine hesitancy was more prevalent among people who have less faith in science, who are more prone to believe in conspiracies, and who expressed less trust in Vladimir Putin. And that’s part one of the reason why this isn’t actually Putin’s fault, even if he has been less than vocal in his own exhortations, and notably refused to be photographed getting the vaccine. (Because, you know, he doesn’t like having his picture taken topless.) Were Putin to be more full throated in his endorsement of the vaccine, it would, if anything, only further alienate those who are most skeptical.

Oddly, though, Russia’s liberal urban intelligentsia — the same people who vote most reliably for the opposition and turn out most frequently for protests — are not prone to vaccine hesitancy. Despite their rather pronounced mistrust for the country’s president, anecdotal evidence at least suggests that they have, almost to a one, been vaccinated. In part, this may be because they tend to have faith in science (and the effectiveness of Sputnik V has been borne out by publications in The Lancet).

To wit, one of those liberals (Elena Panfilova, for those who are keeping score) recounted on Facebook today a conversation she overheard while in the checkout line at a store. People, she said, were discussing the ‘third wave’ of Covid infections that seems to be rolling over Russia, with as many as 13,000 new cases per day. One man in line said:

Yeah, there are a lot of cases. But it’s actually not Covid. My wife works in the ambulance service. Rather, she worked there, now she doesn’t, she left, but they have a little chat group, and her colleagues are saying that almost all of the really hard cases now are being caused by the vaccinations, and not some new strain or whatever. So I talked my parents out of getting vaccinated, they were about ready to go, but I stopped them. And I won’t go myself, and I’ll stop everyone I know.

For others in the line, this story — the insight of a stranger’s wife’s ex-colleague, mediated through the magic of WhatsApp — was as good as gospel, enough to discount whatever the medical establishment said, whatever the government said, even whatever Putin said. One lady in the line even announced she would cancel her upcoming vaccine appointment, so moving was this news.

And that’s the second reason why this isn’t Putin’s fault. Long before he came to power, many — if not most — Russian citizens learned to put much more stock and faith into things that were close to hand, rather than things that were far away. As the Soviet Union collapsed and new institutions of governance struggled (and often failed) to emerge, pronouncements from the television might have been soothing or even inspiring, but they were rarely materially relevant. Engagements with friends and family, with colleagues and neighbors, even sometimes with strangers who happened to share a space — these were where problems could be solved.1

The point here is not that Panfilova’s strangers in the line were untrusting of the institutions of science, medicine and the state. Rather, the issue is that, when it comes to things that matter to them — and what could matter more than their health? — whatever trust they have in those abstract, distant institutions is superseded by their trust in people they can reach out and touch.

If Russia’s public health officials are going to get their vaccine program back on the rails, then, they’re going to need to do more than just get Putin to talk about it, or even raffle off cars. They’re going to need to change the tenor of the conversations that ordinary Russians are having with other ordinary Russians. If the news people start hearing in line at the grocery store is of the success of the vaccine, of how quickly the side effects pass, and how everyone’s doing it, behavior will likely shift.

1

This line of thinking, meanwhile, owes a very great deal to the work of Michael Burawoy, Sarah Ashwin and Jeremy Morris. I wrote about this phenomenon in an article for Social Research in 2019. And you can find a video of a lecture about it, delivered earlier this spring virtually to the University of Ghent, over on Moscow on Thames.