Quarantine vs. Self-isolation
On March 30, 2020 self-isolation orders went into effect in the Russian capital. These orders aimed to keep as many people home and off the streets as possible in order to avoid further spread of the disease. As part of these orders, President Putin announced a non-work week that was to last until April 6. It would later be extended to April 30.
On that day there were 1,226 COVID-19 cases in Moscow, a number that seems low today (city officials just announced 3,570 new COVID-19 cases since yesterday) but at the time was more than 400 cases beyond the city’s self-imposed threshold for instituting a quarantine.
At first, rumors abound that the quarantine would be kin to martial law. Reports claimed that Moscow would be closed to all vehicles entering or exiting the city and that the Russian National Guard would be patrolling city streets. So when the self-isolation orders were announced on the evening of March 29 and several overeager policemen in various neighborhoods were recorded shortly afterward declaring a quarantine over loudspeakers from their patrolling vehicles, it certainly raised alarm among city residents.
The authorities were forced to step back (although they would say they never took such steps in the first place). In this was essentially born two categories of the city’s lock down: quarantine and self-isolation.
The quarantine, they clarified, applied to those over the age of 65 and to anyone who had returned to Russia from international travel within the past 14 days. These people must remain in their homes.
Self-isolation applied to everyone else, and a debate has ensued ever since regarding its legality in the absence of an official declaration by the President of an emergency situation. After all, city authorities only acquired the legal authority to actually enforce self-isolation orders from the Russian Interior Ministry on April 8.
The digital pass system
Since then, the city has gradually but intently expanded its control over movement in and around Moscow. After initially stepping back from the plan, city authorities went ahead earlier this week and implemented a daily digital pass system with QR codes people must acquire in order to move around the city by personal vehicle, public transportation, and even by taxi. Additionally, they set up checkpoints on all roads entering the city for police to check each vehicle and its passengers for this newly required digital pass.
After initial problems the city created in doing so (such as 3-hour traffic jams entering the city from all directions and tightly-packed crowds of people forming at the entrances to the subway, each waiting to have their pass checked by a policeman during a time of city-mandated social distancing), the system has been scaled back and somewhat automated.
For instance, one may no longer use public transportation without a pre-paid transport card. These Troika (Russian word for a ‘group of three’) cards have for years allowed people to use the subway, buses, and trams by adding money to their card balance in advance, thus avoid standing in line to buy a bus or subway ticket. Now these cards must be registered when applying for a digital pass each day, which can be done online, via a government app, or by text message.
Likewise, traveling about the city by personal vehicle has also been significantly limited. Not only has the city prohibited the use of popular car-sharing services, but the city’s massive network of traffic cameras are now scanning license plates and comparing them with its database of digital passes. Vehicle owners will be issued a fine each time their vehicle passes a camera and is flagged, which will likely result in several fines per trip unless the vehicle is registered with a digital pass at least five hours in advance of travel.
Meanwhile, traveling around the city by taxi is not any easier. Taxi drivers now have an app issued by the government, allowing them to check their passenger’s digital pass (the code of which must be provided while ordering the taxi in the first place). Drivers who transport passengers without a valid digital pass risk administrative fees and even their jobs.
And traffic jams entering the city have been eliminated, as police are now stopping vehicles with license plates from other provinces, and randomly checking others for proper documentation to be in Moscow (for example, residency), as well as for the required digital pass.
So far, city authorities are not requiring these passes to move about the city while on foot, so long as one is following the established rules. For instance, a pass is not needed to walk to the nearest supermarket, pharmacy, or bank. Likewise, one can visit their local hospital or clinic, on foot, without a pass. And one can take out the trash and walk their dog within 100 meters of their home without registering this request with the city.
However, police officers are patrolling the streets and one is required to have some type of proof of residence on their person to present, along with a passport, if requested to do so. Police are issuing fines to those who are in violation of the self-isolation rules, for instance, to those who walk their dogs more than 100 meters from their home. As of April 17, police have issued more than 13,500 tickets amounting to over 54 million rubles (over $731,000) in fines, including a case of a ticket issued to a homeless man with nowhere to self-isolate, which made national headlines.
Is it working?
Measures taken by the city appear to be working but a lot of credit must also be given to those Muscovites who are voluntarily staying at home, too. In the week of March 16-22, the total number of COVID-19 cases in Moscow was growing by a daily average of 30.2 percent. The following week (March 23-29), that figure dropped to an average day-to-day growth rate of 27.4 percent at a time when the number of cases in the Russian capital surpassed 1,000.
Since then the city has been under self-quarantine. From March 30-April 5, the average daily growth of COVID-19 cases dropped to 21.4 percent, the following week it fell (April 6-April 12) to 14.7 percent, and day-to-day average growth rate in the third week of self-quarantine has fallen again to 13.3%.
While the situation in Moscow remains “complicated,” according to city officials, the city is no longer experiencing day-to-day growth rates of 30 percent (or more) as was the case a month ago (the total number of cases in Moscow grew 34 percent from 98 to 131 over one day from March 20-21), and the city’s worst day-to-day growth rate thus far was recorded March 15-16, when the total number of cases grew by 60.6 percent from one day to the next.
However, it remains to be seen if the decline in the day-to-day growth rate continues, for there has actually been a slight uptick in the number of new confirmed cases (as opposed to total). In the week immediately preceding self-quarantine, the city was dealing with a 53.4 percent average day-to-day growth in new cases. This day-to-day average figure fell to just over 25 percent (25.4%) in the first week of self-quarantine, and again to 14.6 percent in the second week. Unfortunately, this figure ticked slightly up to 17.6% for the week of April 13-19.