Fight Against COVID-19: Mutual Lessons for India and Russia

President Vladimir Putin with PM Modi
Image credit: Prime Minister's Office, Government of India / GODL-India

Have India and Russia emerged as two of the largest countries that have handled the ongoing pandemic in a better way despite sharing land borders with China – the origin of the pandemic? While there are some trends that suggest initial similarities in approach of the two countries, India and Russia could very end on other sides of the spectrum in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic.

In the latest setback to Russia’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has confirmed his positive COVID-19 test results during televised call to Vladimir Putin. More concerning is the fact that his absence threatens to derail Russia’s fight against the pandemic as he was tasked by Vladimir Putin with leading the response to the country’s coronavirus outbreak. This is greater worry in the light of Putin’s recent warning that the situation could worsen further. In Russia, the number of positive Covid-19 cases has reached a staggering 114,431, while the deaths have reached 1169. The rate of infections in Russia, understood in the early stages of infection as very low, has rapidly spread, pushing the country to extend the lockdown till May 11. By comparison, India has 37, 336 positive cases and 1223 deaths as of May 2, 2020. India has extended the lockdown until May 17.

Both Russia and India are large countries with sub continental expanse and both share land boundaries with China, the place where coronavirus outbreak started. Both the countries have handled the COVID-19 pandemic rather well, when compared to some of the Western countries. Yet, there are glaringly identifiable differences in how the two countries have approached handling of the pandemic. The two countries also differ vastly in the size of their population and the nature of economy, with India’s being highly unorganised compared to Russia’s. Despite early stringent measures by both countries, the figures in both countries tell similar stories about the disease and its control, yet different patterns in virus growth and measures to control it.

On March 24, both Prime Minister Modi and President Putin scrambled to take action, but differently. While Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown for 21 days as a preventive measure against the coronavirus pandemic (which was further extended until May 3 on April 14), Putin donned a protective suit to assess the situation by visiting a hospital. His decision to declare a “non-working week” came four days later on March 28. This has been since extended to April 30. Russia’s decision to close border with China came very early and its border with the country was closed at the end of January. Of the 16 crossings only one remained open for evacuation of Russians from China. The railway from China was stopped, and all charter flights were cancelled. Only a few airlines remained in operation, arriving at one terminal in Moscow with medical supervision of all arrivals and recording of their residence and contacts. By comparison, India had taken a similar decision to stop all domestic and international flights around the same time.

As COVID-19 raged just across the border in China, Russia was virtually untouched initially, reporting just seven confirmed infections till March 10. Since then, the number has risen rapidly with about two-thirds of them in the Moscow region alone. Although Russia has been able to control the death rate, the number of positive cases are on the rise as there is some community transmission. Still, majority of patients who tested positive have a travel history to Europe. Unfortunately, measures to restrict air travel with Europe were introduced too late, when outbreaks had already occurred in Italy and other countries. The majority of the coronavirus cases reported in Russia were brought from Italy. By comparison, India does not have a functional border mobility with China across land border. All its land borders have limited cross-border mobility except Nepal and Bangladesh, both of which saw limited number of cases in early days of the pandemic, followed by India’s decision to into lockdown. 

Beyond Russia’s externally induced cases, its handling of the issue internally also led to the spike in the number of cases. Initially, Russia conducted COVID-19 tests with a locally made device, the efficacy of which many did not trust. All completed tests had to be sent to a single lab in Siberia for results, causing a massive backlog at the facility. This allowed Russian people to continue living their normal lives, even as asymptomatic infection continued, making contact tracing further challenging. This has now been expanded to regional laboratories and the Anti-Plague Research Institute.

The coronavirus has thrown a new challenge to the Putin presidency. The abrupt announcement by Kremlin that Russia was officially closing down gave rise to public apprehension, particularly given the short notice of the decision just like India. Further, the pandemic has already delayed the constitutional referendum scheduled for April 22 that would have allowed Putin to extend his rule. The outbreak could destabilize Russia’s economy by causing a huge drop in global hydrocarbon demand at a time when oil prices have already been free-falling because of the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Despite over $600 billion of foreign reserves, the internal fiscal status remains unhealthy amidst warning that insufficient stimulus package could lead to mass unemployment, bankruptcies and a deep economic slump.

It has been acknowledged by the Mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin, who heads the country’s coronavirus task force, that the real number is “significantly higher.” There is apprehension in Russia watchers that if the situation continues to deteriorate, Putin and the ruling United Russia Party could suffer a loss in public support. If uncontrolled, some even fear the return of street protests against Putin like in 2011-12 and earlier this year. 

COVID-19 presents an invisible enemy. There is no locus standi for countries to project power internationally to reassure people domestically. For instance, this strategy has worked for Putin in the Syrian War where supporting Assad regime became synonymous with standing up against the West. Furthermore, navigating its economy despite severe sanctions from the U.S. became a rallying point for Putin’s image as a strong leader domestically. However, the problem with strongmen syndrome during the time of COVID-19 is that the lack of a visible enemy creates an assurance vacuum. For most countries, capacities to fight the virus will have to be either generated internally or borrowed as ‘aid’ from other countries. As the latter eats into the domestic perception of strong leaders, they tend to preserve their image by giving rather than borrowing. China has quickly recovered to become an opportune supplier to the world, especially the West. The U.S. has earmarked millions of dollars in international aid, despite its worsening domestic situation. Russia too, despite internal problems, has not veered off in providing aid to countries. So far, Russian assistance has focused on three countries: Italy, Serbia and the United States. While Russia’s aid to Italy garners international sympathy and accolades, one to Serbia and the U.S. seem deliberately intended for long term gains. Russia has also committed $2 million to the newly set up ‘PM CARES Fund’ for India’s fight against COVID-19. Will Russia, like China, remerge from the pandemic to implement ‘aid as strategy’ in the post pandemic order? On the other hand, India has launched a serious aid diplomacy regionally as well as internationally by providing medical assistance. It has provided medical help to China, U.S., Brazil, Israel and countries in South America. India has considered sending HCQ tablets to Russia among 43 other countries.

For Russia, providing international aid during the epidemic when most countries are internally absorbed — can potentially lead to the revival or sustenance of the Putin’s ‘saviour’ image, besides providing alternatives to the Western world whose fault lines have been exposed in this crisis. While for India, as opposed to defending image in the international stage, aid has largely meant generating a positive image and creating soft power. Russia’s aid giving abilities remain largely constrained as low oil prices have its economy. The economic situation in Russia and a country that witnesses protests against its top leader intermittently does not stand much in contrast to India which was facing anti-CAA protests just before the pandemic. Although India’s economic fundamentals remained relatively strong for a long time, recent slow growth and job losses have posed new challenges. In many ways, India and Russia are confronted by similar challenges today. Even in their individual fights against the COVID-19 pandemic, there are mutual lessons for both.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.