Even if you can see Russia from your house, you may not want to go there right now. That’s because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has just “leveled up” Russia and three other destinations in a bad way. They’re now at Level 4 on the CDC’s Covid-19 Travel Recommendations.
Such CDC levels are like golf scores or the number of times you accidentally hit yourself in the face with a frying pan. The lower the number, the better. Level 4 is the highest of four levels. It means that the Covid-19 risk in that particular destination is currently “very high” and that you should avoid travel there, regardless of whether you’re vaccinated. In other words, it’s the “don’t go there” level.
Belgium, Burkina Faso, and Slovakia were the three other destinations to go from Level 3 to Level 4 on Monday. As I covered earlier this month for Forbes, a destination moves from Level 3 to Level 4 when the number of reported Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the past 28 days goes from the 100 to 500 range up to above 500. To put things in perspective, 28 days is only a little more than two Scaramuccis, which isn’t that much time. Level 3 means that the Covid-19 risk is “high” without the “very” in front of it. While the CDC warns unvaccinated folks against travel to Level 3 destinations, it urges everyone against all non-essential travel to Level 4 destinations. So you may want to postpone your plans to go to Heuvelland, Belgium, in order to use their potato vending machine, because there are, after all, other ways to get potatoes.
Russia’s relationship with the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) throughout the pandemic has been quite a saga. It certainly hasn’t been a rom-com or even a bromantic comedy. Early on during the Covid-19 pandemic, rather than taking the necessary measures to contain the virus, the Russian government instead downplayed the virus, its spread, and its impact. Unlike some political leaders, the SARS-CoV-2 didn’t care what was said about it and just kept spreading. (Does such a situation in 2020 sound vaguely familiar?)
Eventually, Russia’s President Vladamir Putin had to acknowledge that the virus was a problem, as Andrew Higgins described in a April 10, 2020, New York Times article entitled, “After Months of Denial, Russia Admits the Virus Is Taking Hold.” Nevertheless, over the next few months, Putin claimed that Russia was “we are exiting the coronavirus situation steadily with minimal losses,” as Holly Ellyatt reported in June 2020 for CNBC. He also criticized the U.S. for placing “party interests higher than the interests of the people” and then U.S. President and current Mar-A-Lago resident Donald Trump for lack of leadership. Of course, Russia never did “exit” the coronavirus situation, unless you consider “having more and more Covid-19 cases” as exiting.
In mid-2020, the Russian government began focusing on winning the Covid-19 vaccine arms race, which in essence was the get Covid-19 vaccines in arms race. Russia’s Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology was developing a Covid-19 vaccine called Sputnik V, named after the world’s first artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. This two dose vaccine is somewhat similar to the Oxford–AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines. It employs an engineered version of an adenovirus to deliver into your cells the genetic code used to make the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein into human cells. Unlike the Oxford–AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines though, Sputnik V uses one adenovirus, rAd26, for the first dose and a different one, rAd5, for the second dose.
In August 2020, Putin announced that the Health Ministry had approved Sputnik V, making it the first country to approve a Covid-19 vaccine. But Vladimir Isachenkov and Daria Litvinova reported for the Associated Press how scientists around the world were skeptical and uneasy about this approval. After all, the vaccine hadn’t completed Phase I, II, and III clinical trials yet. Usually approval should come after such trials rather than before, just like saying, “that was delicious” should come after the food’s actually been cooked and eaten and before you even sit at the dinner table. In fact, at the time, it seemed like the vaccine had been tested in only 38 humans, based on a study published in The Lancet. Nevertheless, the Russian government began rolling out the Sputnik V vaccine in Russia soon thereafter. At the same time, they poo-poo’d Covid-19 vaccines developed by other countries.
That tact may have backfired. It’s important to be careful where you poo-poo. Telling people to not trust other Covid-19 vaccines while trying foist your vaccine upon them can be like telling a love interest to not trust anyone else besides you. Or yelling, “who farted” every time an odor arises. Raising distrust in other vaccines can raise distrust in vaccines in general. Even though the Sputnik vaccine eventually went through Phase I through III clinical trials, uptake of the vaccine hasn’t been great. Russia has fully vaccinated only about a third of its population.
That’s why the recent surge in Covid-19 coronavirus infections hasn’t been surprising. Infections and deaths have reached record levels, as reported by Charles Maynes for NPR. Last Thursday, the number of new reported Covid-19 coronavirus infections in Russia exceeded 40,000 and the number of reported Covid-19-related death reached 1,159 over a 24-hour period. Those could in fact be underestimates of the actual number of cases and deaths. There have been questions about the accuracy of Russia’s reported numbers.
That same day, Moscow underwent a 10-day partial lockdown. The Mayor of Russia’s capital city, Sergei Sobyanin, ordered schools, restaurants, bars, cafes, salons, gyms, movie theaters, and car repair shops closed. However, interestingly, theaters and museums have remained open. So if your car is on the fritz, maybe you can wheel it to a museum or have it sit through a nice show.
Moscow certainly isn’t the only place in Russia ramping up Covid-19 measures. Putin recently declared October 30 through November as a “non-working week.” He also told regional governors that they can do what it takes to slow the spread of the virus. This has resulted in different Covid-19 precautions in different parts of Russia.
Belgium, Burkina Faso, Russia, and Slovakia weren’t the only destinations to “level up” on Monday. Poland went from Level 2, or “moderate” risk for Covid-19, up to Level 3. Laos was another newcomer to the Level 3 list. The country had previously been in the level “unknown” category.
The news wasn’t all bad on Monday. Two destinations, Fiji and Jamaica, dropped from Level 4 to Level 3.
Of course, the Covid-19 situations in different countries are dynamic, changing with time. Similar to the U.S., Russia never really controlled the spread of the virus. It’s 8,417,305 reported Covid-19 cases and 235,318 Covid-19-related deaths are the fifth highest totals in each category among all the countries in the World. The number of new Covid-19 coronavirus infections each day has been on the upswing since mid-September. There’s a good chance that Russia will remain at Level 4 for a while. In other words, don’t plan on “Russian” to that part of the world for any non-essential travel anytime soon.