by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The path of the coronavirus pandemic in Russia has been similar to that of other countries: Denial gives way to fear, even despair. Covid-19 has exacerbated tensions and exposed political and economic inadequacies, testing the strength and legitimacy of institutions as well as confidence in national leadership. In this regard, the pandemic could hardly have come at a worse time for the Kremlin.
The days when an overconfident Russia dispatched planeloads of medical supplies to Italy, Serbia and the U.S. now seem like ancient history. As of Thursday there have been more than 57,999 confirmed cases, up more than 5,000 from Wednesday, and 57 more deaths for a total of 513. Those numbers are proportionate to about 131,731 infected and roughly 1,165 dead in the U.S.—numbers America hit before the end of March.
The independent Russian medical union Alliance of Doctors charges that the government is covering up the actual number of infections, so worse may be coming. Even officials are saying it. “I can tell you for sure that there has been no peak [in Covid cases] yet whatsoever,” said Mayor Sergei Sobyanin of Moscow, where more than half the infections and deaths have occurred. “We are at the foothills of the peak, not even in the middle.”
Russia has been facing challenges for years. A decade ago, UNC-CH professor Peter Coclanis warned Carolina Journal Radio about the nation’s demographic challenges.
Kokai: … How is demography, if not destiny, at least playing a major role in Russia?
Coclanis: Well, it’s a very interesting point, and as you point out, it might not be destiny, but it is certainly limiting the ability of Russia to respond flexibly — economically, socially, or politically. The key problem for Russia … is that it is in an unprecedented demographic position, historically. Russia had once been a kind of modern country demographically, with a very low birth rate and a very low death rate. What has happened over the past 15 or 20 years, however, is that its birth rate has continued to fall to extremely low levels. But, there has been a spike in its death rate, reversing, essentially, a modern demographic regime and putting Russia in a unique position of an ostensibly developed country with low birth and a very high death rate, which is leading to a population decline in Russia of unprecedented proportions — which decline is particularly severe among the working age, [the] most economically productive portion of the population, that is to say, the people between about 15 and 60, those that basically do the heavy lifting in any society.