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Coronavirus: No Russia lockdown as Putin puts on show of calm

By Mutala Yakubu
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Russia's president had big plans for this spring, all about stressing stability and projecting strength.

But that agenda has been hijacked by the spread of coronavirus and a dramatic plunge in both the oil price and rouble.

April was earmarked for a vote to approve changes to the constitution, allowing Vladimir Putin to remain in power into his 80s.

May would see a giant military parade, marking the 75th anniversary of Victory Day.

The new mood here is one of nervous uncertainty.

READ ALSO: China experiencing spike in imported Covid-19 cases

For now, both vote and parade are still officially on and Mr Putin is conveying an image of calm in turbulent times.

He's declared the outbreak of Covid-19 "under control" in Russia thanks to its "timely" measures, while state media coverage has slammed Europe for "mismanaging" the pandemic and highlighted a "failure of EU solidarity".

So as European leaders focused on quarantine and crisis, President Putin headed for Crimea to celebrate six years since Russia annexed the territory from Ukraine.

It's a deliberate show of business as usual: the president out and about, meeting crowds and shaking hands, not "social-distancing".

But it is a show.

Everyone who comes into close contact with President Putin is now being tested in advance for coronavirus.

Those screened include all the men getting medals pinned to their chests in Crimea this week, as well as Kremlin staff and accredited journalists. A few weeks ago, they just got temperature checks.

"We consider this a justified step so the president can continue his work with confidence," his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov told the BBC.

Vladimir Putin himself has not been tested.

"He has no symptoms, and - touch wood - feels great and continues his work according to schedule," Mr Peskov explained.

But the infection rate in Russia has begun to escalate even according to official figures, which some suspect are being massaged.

So despite President Putin's characterisation of Covid-19 as something imported, a "foreign threat", protective measures are increasing.

They include everything from border and school closures to a ban on mass gatherings.

But there's no all-out order to stay at home and on Friday the Kremlin insisted that a lockdown for Moscow was "not being discussed at all".

Many suspect the reticence is directly connected to the constitutional vote and a desire to secure Mr Putin's route to re-election as soon as possible.

That process has moved so mysteriously fast from the very start it's been dubbed a "special operation".

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has warned that holding the vote, bringing pensioners out en masse mid-pandemic, would be "criminal" and officials have stressed that it might yet be postponed for safety, or moved online.

But on Friday, Russia's electoral commission revealed plans simply to spread the ballot over a week to limit crowds.

"There is great desire to conduct this vote, not to shelve it," political analyst Konstantin Kalachev told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, suggesting that officials still hope "everything will blow over" and Russia will be spared the worst.

For some, that approach to the epidemic more broadly is reassuring. There's a popular saying here that the less you know, the better you sleep.

"We don't want to hear more, it's frightening," Ksenia, an ice cream seller in a Moscow suburb explained. "We know we have to wash our hands and not go out too much, but people are already buying up everything in the shops and it's scary," she said.

But just a few miles from her kiosk, a symbol of the latest crisis to hit Russia - and much of the world - is growing every day. A brand new temporary hospital is being built at high speed to care for up to 500 patients with coronavirus.

Elsewhere, the defence ministry reports it's conducted emergency drills for virus control and all Russian regions have been put on high alert.

The vote to prolong Vladimir Putin's stay in power, though, is still on course for 22 April.

Source: BBC