‘If you wanted to break the chain of virus transmission, it was necessary to close the airports’
Virologist Chumakov from the USA about the lockdown in Russia, coronavirus statistics and deaths from COVID-19
“When a small boss is afraid of being told off by the top management: ‘Why do you have such a high incidence? You are doing nothing!’ It is a typical situation for a country with a vertical administration system. It is characteristic of not only Russia but also many other countries, for instance, in Central Asia. Everybody is afraid of making their boss angry and wants to look better than they are,” thinks famous American virologist of Russian origin, Director of the Global Virus Network, an adviser to the World Health Organization, the Kazan Imperial University rector’s grandson Konstantin Chumakov. Read in the first part of his interview with Realnoe Vremya why people are dying from COVID-19, if the non-working days would help to reduce the incidence in Russia, when the pandemic calms down and how to fight against anti-vaxxers.
“The health care system development has not changed since the USSR”
How is coronavirus developing in the US? Isn’t it as bad as in Russia?
Everything is alright. Everybody already got used to it. Though our incidence is higher than in Russia, but we live, all establishments is open.
However, the incidence in the US is higher, the death rate is lower than in Russia...
Of course, because two-thirds of the population has been inoculated, and even if people got infected, they don’t fall seriously ill. While those who haven’t been vaccinated try to follow hygiene rules. The most important thing is not to have the health care system overloaded. It isn’t at the moment, there are enough hospital beds for everybody.
If we compare the data on deaths from COVID-19 in the US and Russia, what numbers can be cited?
It is hard to compare. The statistics don’t always show the full picture. In America, the average number of deaths against the incidence is a bit more than 1%. In Russia, it is around 4%. But this data might appear because of infections that aren’t taken into account. It is hard enough to miss a death, while a person falls ill, many don’t even go to the hospital, do a test and aren’t included in the statistics. So the death percentage can be deceiving. Partly, the excess death rate can be related to the quality of the health care system. It is incomparable in Russia and the US. As I heard my colleagues living in Russia say, you have a shortage of beds, people in many hospitals are lying in the corridor, nobody takes care of them, in general, as it was in the Soviet Union. In the USA, the situation is completely different.
In America, the average number of deaths against the incidence is a bit more than 1%. In Russia, it is around 4%. But this data might appear because of infections that aren’t taken into account
“Some regions plucked numbers out of the air”
Do you think Russia is manipulating statistical data on COVID-19? Don’t you have it? Or is it characteristic of all the countries?
I think in the US the statistics also might be quite reasonable. This happens because the system in different states works differently. America has 50 states, almost independent states, each of them has its own politics. And all these issues are resolved in the state. The calculation procedure can be different depending on the state. But I don’t see somebody manipulating the statistics in America — nobody cares about it. In Russia, some regions also do everything accurately. While some pluck numbers out of the air. Nationwide, it isn’t homogeneous.
Why do you think it is necessary to pluck numbers out of the air? Logically, if the statistics are true, they might facilitate more active vaccination in the population. Is this wrong?
You think logically. But life doesn’t work this way. When a small boss is afraid of being told off by the top management: “Why do you have such a high incidence? You are doing nothing!” It is a typical situation for a country with a vertical administration system. It is characteristic of not only Russia but also many other countries, for instance, in Central Asia. Everybody is afraid of making their boss angry and wants to look better than they are. It is psychology.
“People distrust the authorities so much that they don’t agree to get vaccinated even for their own good”
Speaking of COVID-19 around the world, do you think that the current wave is the toughest throughout the pandemic? Many experts are assessing the situation quite pessimistically because the virus is becoming not only more contagious, but also the disease is becoming more severe...
Not exactly. The situation around the world is favourable enough. And the incidence is reducing everywhere except for Europe. There is a tendency for a fall in South, North America, Asia, Australia. Of course, this can change with the coming of winter. But Europe is still the only place where COVID-19 is gaining momentum. Moreover, mainly Eastern Europe. The situation in the Baltic States is by far worse than in Russia.
It is some legacy of the Soviet regime. People distrust the authorities so much that they don’t agree to get vaccinated even for their own good
Partly because the vaccination rate in these countries is too low. It is some legacy of the Soviet regime. People distrust the authorities so much that they don’t agree to get vaccinated even for their own good. Also, the winter is about to come. As we know, respiratory diseases tend to get worse in winter, and there are different reasons for this. The experience of the last year shows that the main coronavirus wave was precisely in winter. Winter is around the corner. I think a certain rise in the incidence should also be expected here. But it is new normality, and people got more or less used to it. The vaccine is available for everybody, there is medication to treat it. If somebody falls ill, he is treated, there is no other way.
“The idea in general isn’t bad, but it wasn’t well thought out”
The non-working days began in Russia on 1 November. Do you think such very questionable measures — almost all places are open, only access to many establishments is via QR codes — can change the situation?
On the one hand, if people start to use the metro and talk in the office less, the virus will stop being transmitted or at least the transmission process will get complicated. On the one hand, I heard many considered this non-working week as a holiday and rushed to Egypt and Turkey. So everything was not organised correctly. If you want to break the chain of virus transmission, tell everybody to stay home, minimise interactions, airports should have been closed so that people do not spread the pathogen. Well, they won’t go to work but will start going for a picnic, visiting each other. And it might turn out much worse.
But in general I think that the non-working week can stop the pandemic’s wave only if people take it seriously. Another thing is that if a week will be enough for this. Most importantly, it is unlikely possible to declare non-working days for a longer period, especially economically. The idea in general isn’t bad, but it wasn’t well thought out how to prevent people from using this week for another purpose.
To be honest, almost everybody is working...
So it turns out that the announcement was made, but the reality is different. How to close enterprises where the production process takes place? It will be a huge loss for the economy, people. Who will pay the salary? In this respect, it is good only for government functionaries who will always be found money. What should those who earn their living on their own do? How to survive the non-working week?
If you want to break the transmission chain of the virus, tell everybody to stay home, minimise interactions
“Many people sit in the front of the computer in pyjamas and don’t need to preen yourself and put on a bow tie”
Now many admit that they are in constant anxiety, if not depression. What feelings do you have due to the coronavirus situation?
The whole pandemic certainly didn’t help improve mental health. People are social animals, especially children. They absolutely need to communicate with similar creatures. When people are in isolation, it ruins their normal life. It is going to be two years since I have been working from home. In our institution, nobody has gone to work since the beginning of the pandemic. The possibility of seeing a person face-to-face, in-person meetings are a completely different thing. And this has an impact on people’s mood and productivity. People who are inclined to panic constantly fear something, wash their hands all the time. Many people develop psychosis. Hopefully, everything will end quickly.
Will total vaccination help?
It will, of course. I don’t doubt it. The correct vaccination with a good vaccine provides immunity, not a hundred per cent, but still. People will be protected from severe disease, and only a small percentage will fall ill. People will simply get used to it. We don’t panic because of the flu. The flu season occurs every year, many fall ill and even die. Yes, one should be careful and try not to hold parties, big gatherings. We are all coming to this. Our life is already returning to normality. Also, a lot of people are working from home. Of course, it would be better if we could work like before. But working from home is better than falling ill.
Is there any hope everybody will go back to the office? Are the US authorities waiting for 80% of the population to be vaccinated?
It is up to every institution. In the place I work in, it was decided to work remotely until spring. Everybody understands that winter is coming and the next wave is possible. Everybody adapted to working in such a mode. It turned out that such a way is effective enough in the sphere I work. There is nothing catastrophic for what we do.
I have a friend working in Washington, and they were announced they would go back to the office on 8 November. My children were announced in late summer that they would go back to the normal regime, but the next wave began, and this decision was cancelled. They are also working from home and going to meetings only once a week. People who work in the office and don’t have to mandatorily be in the workplace adapted to doing this by staying home in pyjamas. I think this is going to stay in many places.
Remote work has a lot of edges. One doesn’t have to spend time and money on transport, clothes. Many people sit in the front of the computer in pyjamas and don’t need to preen themselves and put on a bow tie
Since many have tried to work remotely and liked it, it turned out that remote work isn’t that bad. Remote work has a lot of edges. One doesn’t have to spend time and money on transport, clothes. Many people sit in front of the computer in pyjamas and don’t need to themselves and put on a bow tie. Of course, this inflicted a loss on those who service office workers, for instance, the restaurant business. All people who work in the office used to go for lunch. In Washington, food trucks cooking yummy food for workers of neighbouring companies were popular. Now there is nothing — all the offices are closed, and people in food trucks are jobless. So the economic damage isn’t doubted.
“Mandatory vaccination violates human rights”
Will we get through this?
Give it some two-three years, and everything will settle down. I don’t yet see why the pandemic should end earlier. Some countries are stubbornly not vaccinated. Some people in America also don’t want to get vaccinated. And there aren’t ways of making them be vaccinated. At least in democratic countries. Since the pandemic is global, unless there are countries with a high incidence, nobody can feel safe.
Mandatory vaccination for some citizens was introduced here...
Though our president is wise, he also issued such an order for all federal workers. As a boss of all federal workers, he has the right to issue such an order, either you get vaccinated or do a PCR once in three days. Perhaps, somebody will sue him, and this will probably reach the Supreme Court. But he has no right to order all the population to do this. Personally, I think it is wrong to force one to be vaccinated. Today they require this, tomorrow they do something different. What will this lead to at last? I was vaccinated and have no problem with the vaccine. But it seems to me that mandatory vaccination violates human rights. Everybody has the right to take charge of their organism, and it is necessary to act only by persuading people.
On the other hand, a person who isn’t vaccinated and takes charge of his body can infect many others...
Of course. On the one hand, a person takes charge of his organism. On the other hand, he can pose a threat to people, infect them. This also should be taken into account. So it is quite acceptable to demand tests from people who refused to get vaccinated. But when people are forced to do what they don’t want to, this never leads to anything good. This certainly doesn’t foster trust. I think it was necessary to persuade people, get rid of illiteracy and obscurantism more. But it is a long term project.
If it continues like now — 30% of the population has been vaccinated in Russia, how much time will vaccination take? Or how much time it will take for everybody to fall ill?
“Some vociferous people who propagate rubbish foaming at the mouth”
How can one persuade those who think that a vaccine is an unclear liquid that has not been examined?
We discussed this before the pandemic. Anti-vaccination moods had been maturing and accumulating for a long time. Some vociferous people propagate this rubbish foaming at the mouth. There is nobody who would actively explain that this is rubbish. Few people have authority for modern people, and it isn’t political activists. Perhaps, for the public, it is athletes, actors.
Here it is bloggers.
Everybody has a niche. Some artists, athletes could organise a campaign, make a couple of films to make fun of these obsolete anti-vaxxers. There must be some activity to fight against malicious drop-outs who spread this lie. It is necessary to make sure it is shameful to believe this rubbish so that these people aren’t accepted in a decent society. But almost nothing is done for this. And the scientists, who though don’t have great authority, should also explain this more actively. I always agree to give an interview with pleasure because I think it is important that people hear the truth.
If it continues like now — 30% of the population has been vaccinated in Russia, how much time will vaccination take? Or how much time it will take for everybody to fall ill? Without doubt, millions of people will die in Russia. Think of it, if according to the official statistics the death rate is 4% and everybody will fall ill sooner or later, 4% of the population will die, which is 6 million people. In any case, winter is coming, and I don’t see why something should change before the spring if only draconian measures are not taken. What will happen next... I am not very optimistic that the pandemic will end very soon.