When it comes to the pandemic, the US is not unlike Russia  

When it comes to the pandemic, the US is not unlike Russia  
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As the United States and Russia continue to battle COVID-19, many of their strategies and difficulties appear identical. In the United States, the states have assumed primary responsibility for response to the virus; in Russia, it is that country’s 85 regional entities. “With Moscow reluctant to announce a state of emergency or formally impose quarantine measures,” writes Olga Gulina of the Wilson Center, “ the regional governments have been left to their own devices in anti-virus policymaking.”

President TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE has closed borders to foreign nationals, restricted immigration of intended green card holders (permanent resident aliens), and limited ports of arrival for returning U.S. citizens.  In Russia, President Putin closed its borders to foreign nationals in mid-March, and Russian citizens can return only through Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. The resulting halt in movement of people has trapped migrant workers, documented and undocumented, in the United States — many without work. Similarly, Moscow’s moves have trapped inside its borders migrant workers from post-Soviet states — many without work, as well.

The United States has an economic lockdown, except for essential services such as the food and pharmaceutical industries. On April 2, Putin announced a “regime of non-working days.” Just as it has been left to state and local government officials to determine how to implement the economic lockdown, it is up to Russian regional officials to implement the new regime. In both countries, the result has been a patchwork of policies with enforcement at different levels depending on the jurisdiction.


According to Gulina, “the president has been absenting himself from decision-making and has handed over some real power to regional leaders. Second, regional authorities have simply arrogated to themselves additional powers and have infringed on citizens’ rights, occasionally in violation of federal law (which takes precedence) and their legal authority. Third, the federal center is dysfunctional: the federal leadership still absorbs resources and tax revenues but seems unable to pass adequate regulations to reduce the infection rate or provide life-sustaining aid to those persons and businesses affected. The absence of effective leadership from the federal center is striking.” If one removes the context, the reader could be left wondering to which country she is referring.

Within the United States, there has been an undercurrent of distrust of the federal government ever since Lyndon Johnson was caught lying to the American public about the war in Vietnam:  He saw a light at the end of the tunnel. In a unique twist, President Trump — who says he sees a light at the end of the viral tunnel — feeds distrust of his own government through his attacks on the Deep State. As a result, when the government warns a deadly virus is coming from China, the administration and its supporters — approximately 43 percent of the electorate — immediately dismiss the danger as a trick of the Deep State.

In Russia, according to political scientist Abbas Gallyamov, “People are used to the fact that everything in life is much worse than official propaganda tells.” As a result, according to a poll taken in early April by the Higher School of Economics, 50 percent of Russians believe the statistics in their country on numbers infected or dead is underreported. Only 12 percent thought the information to be reliable. Sixteen percent do not believe that self-isolation is necessary to stop the disease, while 23 percent accept the need for restrictions but think they should be relaxed.

In the United States, the administration and its supporters have begun turning from the impact of the disease on American health toward a discussion of the impact on the American economy. In Russia, according to Andrei Zhulin, director of the Institute for State and Municipal Management at the Higher School of Economics, for Russians the priority is not fear of infection or death; rather, it is economic problems.

The Kennan Institute’s Maxim Trudolyubov writes: “The Kremlin’s initial downplaying of the gravity of the situation and the lack of government support for those working in the private sector meant that a lot of Russians, faced with a stark choice between the risk of losing income and the risk of contracting a viral disease, would choose to go outside the home and continue working for as long as they could. They simply did not trust the government’s willingness, capacity and impartiality to make the right choices and support all social groups hurt by lockdowns.” Change the words “Kremlin” for “White House” and “Russians” for “Americans,” and the demonstrators in Michigan and California would agree.

COVID-19 does not respect borders. The United States should be working with anyone who is willing to ally themselves in the anti-coronavirus campaign.  

James J. Coyle, Ph.D., served in a number of positions in the U.S. government, including as director of Middle East Studies, U.S. Army War College. He is the author of “Russia’s Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts.”