Putin call-in show: Russians press the president on new coronavirus vaccine rules
Putin’s annual “Direct Line” call-in show, in which citizens can submit queries — many are prescreened — for the president, coincided with the controversial recent move by regions across Russia to order 60 percent of workers who interact with the public — teachers, taxi drivers, salespeople and others — to get vaccinated or get different jobs.
Though the measure makes vaccination de facto mandatory for a large swath of the population, Putin said Wednesday he doesn’t support compulsory inoculation.
But “the only way to prevent the pandemic from developing further is vaccination,” he said. “I hope that the prejudices among people will decrease.”
He then made a dig at two Western vaccines — Pfizer and AstraZeneca — by claiming that there are dangerous side effects from them. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been plausibly linked to extremely rare but in some cases fatal blood clots. European and U.S. regulators have not linked the Pfizer vaccine to any such side effects.
When Moscow announced the new measures on June 16, just 15 percent of Muscovites had been vaccinated, according to the Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, despite Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine being widely available free of cost. The uptake was worse for the rest of the country at just 11.5 percent.
Just minutes before the start of the call-in show, Russia announced it recorded 21,042 new coronavirus cases and a record number of related deaths, 669, in the past day. Sobyanin has attributed about 90 percent of the new infections in Moscow to the more virulent delta variant, which was first detected in India.
Putin was then asked if had actually been vaccinated, since there were no photos or video of him getting the jab and the Kremlin declined to reveal which of the Russian-made vaccines he got. Putin said he was optimistic that people believed his word that he was indeed vaccinated; he argued that even if his vaccination had been televised, there could have been anything in the vial.
But he did disclose that he had opted for the Sputnik V jab.
Russia was the first country to authorize a coronavirus vaccine when it approved Sputnik V for mass use last August. But although the vaccine has been authorized by more than 60 countries, 62 percent of Russians polled in April said they would not take Sputnik V, according to the Levada Center, an independent polling and research institute.
Accordingly, the new vaccine rules have divided Russian society. In Moscow, restaurants and bars have been ordered to limit admission to people with a QR code confirming their vaccination or proof of a negative PCR coronavirus test within the previous three days.
In a preview ahead of the call-in show, Russia’s independent Republic Magazine coined the event Putin’s “direct line with the anti-vaxxers.” Putin was in Geneva for his summit with President Biden when the new vaccine mandate was announced in Moscow, and he had held off on commenting on it since then.
Putin’s “Direct Line” call-in show has been a staple of his more-than 20-year reign — with the exception of last year’s coronavirus-related hiatus. The carefully choreographed show sometimes lasts more than four hours. Russians are invited to send in questions to the president, and the Kremlin said it received nearly 2 million this year. The goal is to portray a Putin who is deeply invested in Russians’ lives, tackling even granular issues during the show and then ordering officials to look into them.
On Wednesday, he started the event by siding with the Russians who say they’re facing pressure to get vaccinated. One man who called in, a teacher’s spouse, said she’s being threatened with firing if she doesn’t get vaccinated despite her having a medical excuse.
“That’s illegal,” Putin told him.