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Vladimir Putin told Russia it should go back to work on Tuesday, a day after posting almost the world's highest daily growth in new coronavirus cases, second only to the United States.
Russia has been under lockdown for a little over six weeks, and although the number of new cases has hovered around 10,000 per day for a week now, an addition of new 11,656 cases on Monday broke the country’s record.
President Putin in his address to the nation on Monday lauded Russian officials for taking on Covid-19 early, adding more hospital beds and ramping up testing, and said that it was time to end what he dubbed “non-working weeks” on Tuesday.
“We cannot be guided by a single blueprint because certain actions in some regions could create unnecessary risks to citizens while in other regions they could lead to pointless restrictions on people and businesses,” Mr Putin said, leaving it up to regional governors to decide when and how to ease the restrictions.
Although high in absolute numbers, the speed at which the infection rate is growing is declining, according to Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, who said testing has become so widespread that 46 percent of confirmed cases were asymptomatic.
Anxious to avoid being associated with bad news, President Putin has largely taken a back seat in dealing with the outbreak and has faced criticism for failing to offer any significant help to struggling businesses and people who have lost their incomes.
In a clear bid to bolster his declining approval ratings, Mr Putin on Monday pledged cash handouts for families with children and tax breaks for businesses in a package of economic aid which still represents a fraction of what Russia’s leading economists and opposition leaders have proposed.
Mr Putin’s optimism about hospital capacity and tests, set to double to 300,000 by the end of the week, sounded all the more confusing as Sergei Sobyanin, the Moscow mayor, is still warning Muscovites about “challenging times ahead” and insists that the Russian capital is nowhere near the peak in infections.
Mr Sobyanin last week extended the city lockdown at least until the end of the month, with residents obliged to wear face coverings and gloves in all public places.
Russia’s richest city, with financial resources incomparable to the rest of the country, Moscow began to show signs of plateauing in new infections last week, and officials said the number of those discharged from hospital has finally begun to exceed the number of new patients.
The Covid-19 outbreak in the regions, where hospitals are chronically underfunded and health care workers almost always lack personal protective equipment, is lagging two weeks behind Moscow, and questions have been raised about at least several major regions which have been showing an abnormal leveling in new cases.
The president’s surprise announcement was largely seen as a sign that he is now washing his hands of the epidemic’s devastating effect on the economy, making the regional leaders ultimately responsible for the fallout.
Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov summed up a common take on President Putin’s approach in a tweet:
“You can’t stay at home at your own expense any more _ and because we’re not going to give you any money, we’ll have to risk people’s health.”