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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 18 New Delhi, April 18, 2020

Russia: Citizens’ Impoverishment May Become Worse Than Covid-19

Saturday 18 April 2020

Commentary by attorney Dmitriy Agranovskiy: Endemic Impoverishment of Russians May Become Worse Than the Coronavirus. The State Is Obliged To Support Its Citizens in a Difficult Situation

Nowadays, they love giving all sorts of nastiness bright and sometimes romantic names. So, a combination of an unprecedented drop in oil prices with a similarly unprecedented epidemic of the coronavirus and no less unprecedented measures to combat it is called the "perfect storm." And this storm is striking not just in our economy, but first and foremost, at the poorest, most vulnerable, and, alas, most numerous stratum of our population.

I am not a virologist; I do not understand strains and mutations of viruses; I cannot say anything about their artificial or natural origin; it is hard for me to choose between polar-opposite opinions that argue with the same passion that, on the one hand, the virus is extremely dangerous for humanity, but on the other — that it is no more dangerous than the flu. It is hard for me to say how governments of several countries could strike such a blow to their budgets, collapsing oil prices severalfold. Let professionals figure this out, and we are ready to listen to them with interest and draw our own conclusions.

I would like to look at the situation from the point of view of an ordinary person, that is, a person living only on his own income, taking care of children and parents, the one who goes to ordinary shops, rides ordinary personal or public transport on ordinary roads, and does not have personal security or high-ranking patrons — basically, the one whom our President [Vladimir Putin] considered the "middle class." Let me remind you that we have to consider an income that is one and a half times higher than the minimum wage — that is, about R17,000 [about 223 dollars] per person per month — the criterion of the middle class.

And for such people, in my opinion, a dystopia, which we have seen many times in science-fiction films but did not think that we would have to live in, is rapidly unfolding. Even a month, a month and a half, ago it was still hard to imagine what the most ominous combination of an epidemic, economic crisis, and oddly enough, technological progress would turn our lives into.

I want you to understand me correctly: I am in favour of the most decisive measures combating the virus, especially since the virus is dangerous for the masses not so much because of the symptoms it causes, but because of its potential — no one (or, let us say, no one but those in the know) knows what it is, where it came from, how to treat it, when the vaccine will be created, and whether the next mutation will be much more dangerous than the current one.

Considering this, the measures taken globally by the authorities of different countries do not seem excessive to me. In my view, we need to recognise that the situation in Russia is far from being as bad as in a whole number of countries, which until recently were commonly called "civilised" and "developed" in our propaganda. In general, our situation in terms of the epidemic is under control and, I think, has a high chance of remaining under control. A relatively small number of infected people is due precisely to the fact that, for the most part, our people cannot afford a trip abroad. Although health care and sanitary control were "optimised" to a large extent, they still retain the Soviet principles — universal vaccination (particularly, the BCG vaccine, which everyone in the USSR received), common in the countries of the former socialist camp, has already proved itself not only in Russia, but also, for example, in the territory of the former GDR [German Democratic Republic] — and a certain neglect for rights and freedoms combined with the discipline and patriotism of the population allow for introducing tough measures.

And here comes the main question. In recent days, a whole package of tough measures has been adopted at various levels, the details of which I will not dwell on, since they are published everywhere. Many of these measures are necessary and justified. It is necessary to severely punish irresponsible people who do not want to comply with the quarantine. It is necessary to fight fake news, which the Internet is now strewn with, courtesy of our Western "partners" — indeed, no one has cancelled the information war.

But there is concern that they will clearly lean towards repressive measures. Indeed, what bottom line do we have for us, the ordinary people? They are quite roughly locking us at home. At the same time, they are promising to monitor all our movements. Legal amendments, starting with the term "self-isolation," are written so vaguely that a person can wind up with thousands in fines by just going outside.

At the same time, many citizens are left at home without any source of income. Not all employers intend to keep paying those sitting at home, and many simply cannot, because they have no funds except those that are in operation, and just like their workers, they barely make ends meet. They promise to pay R19,500 [about 259 dollars] in Moscow and R15,000 [about 199 dollars] in Moscow Region to each officially unemployed and officially registering in this capacity person, but either less or nothing at all in other regions. In some regions, they are temporarily exempted from overhaul fees — this is one of the most modest articles in the structure of housing and utility payments.

Most citizens have no savings. According to various estimates, there are from 16 to 25 million self-employed in Russia, about whom, as I understand it, no one at all thought of and who are not entitled to any help at all. You could say — they should have thought about it before. Perhaps it is true, but no one warned them of either the coronavirus or the fall in oil prices. And now, when these people are left without a livelihood, this is no longer their personal problem, but the problem of the entire state and society. Somewhere from thin air they have pulled out the statistic that an average Russian family has money and food reserves to last 63 days. I do not understand who calculated it and how. But even so, a huge number of people will be on the brink of not surviving much earlier.

In short, I am not going to whip up tension, the situation is obvious, and I need to summarise: People find themselves in tough lockdown in their homes, with the use of the most modern means of control and under the threat of huge fines, one-on-one with global problems for which they are not at all to blame, without a livelihood, without any serious support in a psycho-traumatic situation of the epidemic and crisis, and it is unclear when it will end and how.

Most citizens are currently law abiding and willing to follow restrictions — as much as it will be physically possible. But after a while, many of them will simply start starving. I do not presume to predict how law-abiding and attentive to prohibitions and restrictions they will remain in that situation.

Behold, even [US President] Donald Trump, a person quite sophisticated in politics as well as in knowledge of the market economy, spoke out along the lines of the USA not being able to keep up with the quarantine long enough because the negative impact of the quarantine on the US economy is starting to exceed the negative impact of the epidemic, and this process will only increase the further it goes. This is given the fact that in the United States they announced support measures in the form of paying hundreds of dollars to everyone who is in self-isolation.

They would tell me that the United States has huge financial resources in comparison with us. But didn’t the authorities assure us in recent years that we have also accumulated huge amounts of money? Have we not seen in every city — for example, in the framework of the so-called urban improvement — that there is so much money that they do not even know where to spend it?

The state must and is obliged (yes, must and obliged!) to support its citizens in a difficult situation, but not just introduce fines, prison terms, and means of total control, which [George] Orwell could not dream of.

Here, for example, are some of the support measures that Venezuela, a country that is not in the best economic position, provides to its citizens:

The state will take on paying the wages of all civil servants and employees of state and private (!) enterprises over the next six months to ensure that they can stay at home.

A presidential decree prohibits firing employees until 31 December of the current year.

It is forbidden to charge rent for the next six months.

It is forbidden to charge instalments and interest on any type of financing.

Payments for electricity, water, and gas are suspended for an indefinite period.

Seven million families will receive a basic food basket every 15 days while the state of emergency is in effect in the country.

What prevents them from introducing such clear and effective measures in our country? Plus, every citizen of Russia should receive material support. Exactly everyone, because the obvious majority need it, but without determining who needs it and who does not because there is simply no time to collect certificates. After all, the rich and socially responsible can refuse help or send it to medical facilities or simply give it to a poor neighbour.

This should be done urgently and decisively, before a sufficiently large number of citizens fall below the level of physical (and mental!) survival. Because subsequent problems can become such that we can simply forget about the coronavirus epidemic.

courtesy: Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 6, 2020

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