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Russia battles highest COVID-19 infection and death rates since the pandemic's start

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For almost a year, as coronavirus spread across Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere, Russia's numbers were curiously low by comparison. Well, that has changed. This week, Russian health authorities reported that rates of infections and death are the highest since the start of the pandemic. And this morning, in an effort to slow further spread of the disease, Russia begins a, quote, "nonworking period." From Moscow, NPR's Charles Maynes reports.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: There was a time when President Vladimir Putin boasted of Russia's handling of the coronavirus, including rollout of its Sputnik V vaccine. Yet with surging infections and the death toll mounting, a clearly frustrated Putin said last week he couldn't comprehend why Russians - nearly two-thirds of them - continue to refuse to get the shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "I can't understand what's going on," said Putin. "We have a reliable and efficient vaccine. I want to emphasize again there are only two choices - get sick or get vaccinated."

Russian officials have registered the highest death toll in Europe, and there's solid evidence the real total is far more than the official count. Yet it's an unprecedented surge from the delta strain of the virus that has the Kremlin reintroducing what it calls a nonworking week while giving regional authorities broad powers to tackle the pandemic as they see fit.

For Khakassia, a republic in eastern Siberia, that means a 10 p.m. curfew and halt to all public transport, even if some locals doubt the move's impact.

ALEXEI KIRICHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "There's not much to do here after 10 p.m. anyway. It's cold out," says Alexei Kirichenko (ph), an independent journalist in Khakassia's main city of Abakan, who said spare beds in local COVID wards were filling up fast, along with gripes about the new restrictions.

KIRICHENKO: (Through interpreter) The same people who complain about the curfew and buses not working are the same ones who never wore masks to begin with.

MAYNES: Back in Moscow, a web of lockdown measures brought an abrupt end to a sense of normalcy that had settled over the capital in recent months. Unvaccinated seniors are required to stay indoors, schools have shuttered and offices have sent workers home. Meanwhile, city restaurants, bars, cafes and movie theaters - pretty much everyone in the business of fun - have been ordered closed to customers.

ANNA ALEKSEEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "The lockdown is hitting us again," says a disappointed Anna Alekseeva (ph), who works in a small craft beer bar.

ALEKSEEVA: (Through interpreter) If they keep us shut until the new year, we're done for. This isn't Europe or America, where they at least provided some financial assistance. The government here doesn't care about small business at all.

MAYNES: Moscow theaters and museums remain among the few public spaces still open to visitors, albeit at 50% capacity and with proof of vaccination.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: That includes "Life With Viruses," a new exhibit dedicated to the interplay between humans, pathogens and science over the centuries. Tour guides lead visitors through huge models of spores and bacteria. An interactive video game called Pandemic allows players to try and save a metropolis from mass infection. And in the corner, a hologram of the coronavirus, with its now-famous spikes, pulsates against the wall.

SERGEI RYKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Exhibit curator Sergei Rykov (ph) says he often finds himself looking at it and meditating.

RYKOV: (Through interpreter) We don't want to scare anyone. Our goal is to inform. The more we understand what we're dealing with, the better chance we have of coming up with ways to defend ourselves.

MAYNES: Rykov notes the exhibit's tell-it-like-it-is approach has proved popular with once-skeptical health officials now looking to reboot Russia's vaccination efforts. Yet some health experts say Russia's current COVID woes are due at least in part to the Kremlin's own propaganda machine.

GEORGII BAZYKIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Georgii Bazykin, a biologist at the Skolkovo Institute in Moscow who studied the epidemiology of the virus, says state media has pushed conspiracies questioning the efficacy of Western vaccines that undermine Russia's own campaign.

BAZYKIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "It played a cruel joke on Russia's vaccination efforts," says Bazykin, "a country that produces and exports a vaccine its own citizens refuse to take."

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.