Putin in isolation after COVID scare among inner circle

Day before beginning period of self-isolation, Russian leader met Paralympians, officials and Syria’s president.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in isolation after people in his inner circle became infected with the coronavirus, but the leader himself has tested negative for COVID-19, according to the Kremlin.

The Russian leader explained the situation to a government meeting on Tuesday by video conference, after the Kremlin said he was “absolutely” healthy and did not have the disease himself.

Putin, who is fully vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V, held several public engagements indoors on Monday, most of which were indoors and where it appeared from images on TV that no one wore masks.

He shook hands with Russian Paralympic athletes and pinned medals on them, attended military exercises alongside other officials, and met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose hand he also shook.

“It’s a natural experiment. Let’s see how Sputnik V works in practice,” Putin said. “I have quite high levels of antibodies. Let’s see how that plays out in real life. I hope everything will be as it should be.”

Putin, 68, said the circumstances had forced him to cancel a planned trip to Tajikistan this week for regional security meetings expected to focus on Afghanistan, but that he would take part by video conference instead.

Playing down pandemic

During a daily conference call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin is “absolutely healthy” but had come in contact with someone who contracted the virus.

Asked if Putin tested negative for the virus, Peskov said, “Definitely, yes.”

Peskov did not say who among the president’s contacts was infected, but that there were several cases.

Russian authorities have been regularly criticised for underplaying the pandemic and for rarely imposing measures to control it even as cases and deaths grow.

Russia’s death toll is currently running at its highest level of the pandemic, with just fewer than 800 fatalities a day. Nevertheless, few virus restrictions are currently in place.

Putin has appeared to work largely remotely and was rarely seen in public for a period before he was vaccinated.

During Monday’s meeting with the Paralympians, Putin signalled that he was aware of cases close to him.

“Even in my circle problems occur with this COVID,” the Russian leader was quoted by the state RIA Novosti news agency as saying. “We need to look into what’s really happening there. I think I may have to quarantine soon myself. A lot of people around [me] are sick.”

Peskov later said Putin was speaking “figuratively”.

Asked on Tuesday about why Putin proceeded with public events, Peskov said that the decision to self-isolate was made after “doctors completed their testing, their procedures”.

Peskov said without explaining that “no one’s health was endangered” at Monday’s events.

Low vaccination rates

Russia’s daily coronavirus infections have fallen in the past month from more than 20,000 to about 17,000 — but experts have called into question how Russia is tallying cases and deaths.

Despite high caseloads, Russia has struggled to vaccinate its citizens, and its rates lag behind many other countries.

As of Friday, only 32 percent of the population had received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine, and only 27 percent had been fully vaccinated.

Putin has occasionally gone to extreme lengths to protect himself from infection, despite the lack of restrictions in general.

Peskov has confirmed media reports that people who meet in-person with Putin or attend events with him have to undergo “rigorous testing” or quarantine ahead of time.

Officials even set up special “disinfection tunnels” last year at his residence and the Kremlin that anyone meeting Putin had to walk through. The visitors were sprayed with a disinfectant mist, although it is not clear how effective that is.

Putin also once visited a hospital in a full hazmat suit.

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