A day after Putin donned a hazmat suit for a 'high risk' photo op while visiting Covid-19 patients at a hospital outside Moscow, the Russian president gave an important address to the nation, updating the country on new drastic measures amid the pandemic, starting with urging the country to "stay at home" and a declaring a week-long work holiday toward that end.
Importantly, Putin declared the postponement of a national referendum on constitutional amendments originally scheduled for April 22 to "a later date".
The proposed amendments came out of the major January shake-up which led to the resignation of the government. The measures were expected to pass easily, but the changes have been hugely controversial outside Russia as they could theoretically allow him to be president until 2036.
But more immediate pressing is Russia's growing number of Covid-19 cases. Despite Russia's confirmed cases being relatively low for a country of nearly 150 million people, as of Wednesday at 658 with at least one death, Putin warned citizens, "Don't think that this can't happen to you" in the televised address.
This after Russia's biggest one day rise in reported cases - 163 overnight - with most in Moscow: 410. Media outlets in the West have been scratching their heads, asking: What Exactly Is Going On With Russia’s Low Coronavirus Numbers?
Officials within the country are increasingly posing the same question, with Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin telling President Putin in a meeting Tuesday that "the real number of those who are sick is much greater" than official numbers indicate.
It seems Putin took the dire warning to heart as he announced a series of drastic measures to combat the spread including declaring the entire next week a work holiday (with salaries preserved, he noted), or something akin to a national lockdown. “All the measures that have been and will be taken will work, produce a result as long as we show solidarity, understanding of the difficulty of the current situation,” Putin said.
Alarmingly, he took a pessimistic tone that belies the current low numbers, saying it will ultimately be "impossible" to completely stop the coronavirus spread in Russia due to the large size of the country.
“Now it is extremely important to prevent the threat of the rapid spread of the disease, therefore, I declare the next week non-working with salary preservation, that is, days off will last from Saturday March 28 to Sunday April 5,” he told the public.
According to Reuters, numbers are expected to climb dramatically given the expected ramp-up in testing, which thus far has been scarce:
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a close Putin ally, told the Russian leader on Tuesday that a serious situation was unfolding in the capital and that the real number of cases was unclear but was increasing quickly.
Testing for the virus was scarce, said Sobyanin, and many Muscovites returning from abroad were self-isolating at home or in holiday cottages in the countryside, and not being tested.
He further announced in the speech the automatic extension of all social benefits, including a plan to give families an extra 5,000 rubles per month per young child.
Government payments will also be available for workers who must go on sick leave, or who lose their jobs during this time of national crisis.
Notably the Wednesday speech marks the most serious tone Russia's leadership has struck yet concerning the pandemic, even though there's likely been Covid-19 cases there significantly before the United States.