Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the whole of next week a public holiday in Russia in order to slow the spread of Covid-19 in the country.
He was set to address the nation today in a rare televised broadcast as authorities scrambled to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
The Kremlin announced the address as Russia recorded its biggest spike in confirmed infections so far, with 163 new cases for a total of 658 across the country.
Russia has yet to impose the kind of restrictions seen in other countries over the virus, but concern has been growing as the number of cases steadily grows.
Putin met with top officials on Tuesday and put on a yellow hazmat suit as he visited a major hospital treating coronavirus patients.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses Russian citizens on the State Television channels in Moscow today
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who heads a coronavirus task force, told Putin that the actual number of cases was probably ‘significantly’ higher than official figures.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that after Tuesday’s meetings Putin had decided he needed to address the nation.
Putin said last week that the situation with the coronavirus was ‘under control’ after Russia imposed 14-day quarantines on people arriving from abroad.
A mammoth £92 million construction operation is seeing the rise of a 500-bed infectious diseases clinic from an open field
The government has also closed schools, recommended that some people work from home and told elderly residents in Moscow, where most of the cases are concentrated, to self-isolate.
It halted cultural and sports events and closed fitness clubs, cinemas and night clubs, though restaurants and cafes were allowed to remain open.
Putin has also declared people be off work from next week to slow the spread of the virus.
Authorities have repeatedly denied plans to impose lockdowns like those seen in China, Italy, Spain, France or Britain, but the warnings from officials on Tuesday were stark.
‘The problem is that the volume of testing is very low and no one has a clear picture’ of the situation in Russia and the world’, Sobyanin told Putin.
Describing the project as ‘gigantic’ – and eventually creating 656 beds – Vladimir Putin has promised it will be completed ‘in the coming weeks’
Denis Protsenko, head doctor of Moscow’s new hospital treating coronavirus patients, told Putin that Russia needed to be ready for an ‘Italian’ scenario, referring to what is now the hardest-hit country in the world in terms of deaths.
‘If there is a big spike, and Moscow is headed there, our hospital is ready to transform,’ he said.
Russian lawmakers have proposed imposing severe punishments – including up to seven years in prison – for people breaking coronavirus quarantine rules.
Apart from traditional New Year’s greetings, Putin rarely addresses the public on television. The last time was over an unpopular pension reform in August 2018.
Among the measures he will announce is to postpone a national vote on constitutional reforms scheduled for April 22.
The construction of a new hospital for Covid-19 patients in Moscow pictured on March 12
The reforms, proposed by the president and approved by lawmakers over the last few months, would reset presidential term limits and potentially allow Putin, in power for 20 years, to stay in office until 2036.
He could also postpone plans for a massive military parade on May 9 to mark 75 years since the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Dozens of foreign leaders had been invited to take part.
Peskov said on Wednesday the postponement of the celebration had been discussed but no decision was yet made.
The defence ministry said it was checking the readiness of military units to fight the epidemic following an order from Putin.
The coronavirus and a steep drop in oil prices have caused a two-pronged crisis for the Russian economy, with the ruble falling to its lowest levels since early 2016.
This presents a huge challenge to Putin’s promises to boost economic growth and raise living standards.
How Big Brother is watching over the Russian capital in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus
A vast and contentious network of facial recognition cameras keeping watch over Moscow is now playing a key role in the battle against the spread of the coronavirus in Russia.
The city rolled out the technology just before the epidemic reached Russia, ignoring protests and legal complaints over sophisticated state surveillance.
Since last month, thousands of Muscovites have been confined to their homes for 14 days of compulsory quarantine after returning from virus-hit countries, being in contact with those infected or diagnosed with mild symptoms.
Police have logged their details and warned them that sneaking out into the city of 16 million residents and daily visitors could lead to a five-year jail term or deportation for foreigners.
‘We are constantly checking that this regulation is being observed, including through the use of automated facial recognition systems,’ Mayor Sergei Sobyanin wrote in his blog in February.
The Russian capital already had a tight network of 170,000 security cameras, set up in streets and metro stations throughout the city over the past decade.
Around 100,000 have now been linked to artificial intelligence systems that can identify people being filmed. The remaining cameras are due to be connected soon.
Moscow police said last week that the cameras that are linked have allowed them to identify almost 200 people who broke quarantine rules.
As well as the cameras, Russia has said it is drawing on an array of technology to fight the virus, including telemedicine consultations, the real-time monitoring of supermarket shelves and identifying and removing false news stories from social media.
Sobyanin has said that the authorities have contacts and work addresses for 95 percent of those quarantined after returning from high-risk countries.
‘We’ve identified where they are,’ said the mayor, who heads a working group on combating the virus set up by Putin.
Last month on his blog he praised the efficiency of the facial recognition system with a story of a Chinese woman who tested positive soon after arrival and was hospitalised.
Her flatmate was quarantined but security cameras filmed her walking outside and meeting a male friend.
The mayor added that the authorities swiftly gathered contacts of more than 600 of the woman’s neighbours and even her taxi driver from the airport.
Facial recognition technology was first tested during the 2018 World Cup in Russia before going fully online in January, just before the pandemic hit.
‘The probability of a mistake by our facial recognition algorithm is 1 in 15 million,’ said Alexander Minin, CEO of NtechLab, the company that won the city’s tender to supply the technology.
The firm’s devices, which have been exported to China and Latin America, can identify someone from their silhouette alone ’80 percent of the time,’ he told AFP at the start of the year.
Russia, alongside China, lead the field globally with the most sophisticated technology, which they export to some 100 countries, Valentin Weber, a researcher in cybersecurity at the University of Oxford, wrote in a 2019 paper.
Why have we not seen more of this across the continent?
‘Due to stronger data protection laws in Europe, facial recognition has not yet been implemented on a large scale. Russian and Chinese companies have had less legal constraints to gather and use data than their European counterparts,’ Weber told AFP.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, critics warned of the potential for excessive state surveillance reminiscent of the all-seeing ‘Big Brother’ in George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’.
The fear was that rather than protecting the general public, the cameras would be used to monitor Kremlin opponents and undermine civil liberties.
‘The security argument is the one always used to justify loss of privacy and personal liberty. That’s where the greatest problem and the greatest danger lie,’ said French cybersecurity researcher and renowned hacker Baptiste Robert.
The technology’s creator Minin says that he has confidence in the Moscow authorities and insists that personal data like passport details and phone numbers is not stored on the same databases as camera images.
He says the data sets can only be matched by law enforcement if deemed strictly necessary.
But opponents see such technology as threatening, given the Soviet history of mass surveillance of those deemed by the KGB secret police to be state enemies.
Vocal rights activist and lawyer Alyona Popova launched legal action against the use of facial recognition at an officially authorised opposition protest in September last year.
She said cameras were attached to metal detectors that every participant had to pass through.
‘The massive use of facial recognition technology amounts to state surveillance of its citizens and the state will certainly use it against political opponents,’ she told AFP.
Her complaint was eventually thrown out, but an online petition she launched on Change.org against the technology’s use gained almost 75,000 signatures before the COVID-19 crisis.
The mayor’s office denies the technology is used to monitor the opposition.
Yet to highlight the issue, four activists in February protested outside the presidential administration offices, their faces brightly painted with geometrical shapes and lines said to confuse cameras.
A similar protest took place in London.
‘There have already been cases of political activists who were detained in the metro after being identified with the help of cameras,’ said one of the protesters, artist Katrin Nenasheva.
Four of the activists were later fined 15,000 rubles ($185) after being charged with organising an unsanctioned protest.
NtechLab chief Minin warned that face painting or covering up ultimately won’t help those wanting to avoid being identified.
‘We can work even when up to 40 percent of the face is covered by a helmet or medical mask,’ he said.