It is the beginning of March 2021, a full year into the COVID-19 crisis, and there is still no clear understanding on when this pandemic will end. Some destinations have been luckier with reduced numbers of infected people and can allow a certain level of freedom to its population, while others are still under tremendous pressure and enforce strict control on all activities, effectively limiting the freedom of the population. As a result, some people are enjoying spas, wellness centers, restaurants, and various events while others are effectively isolated in their homes.
In my case, I decided to travel to a place over the winter where there were minimal limitations and where everything is functioning similar to it has been prior to the pandemic. This destination turned to be Russia. The Russian authorities are not so easily accepting international visitors, but with Russian citizenship most of the entry restrictions are waived. Foreigners entering Russia must have negative a PCR test prior to boarding the airplane, while Russian citizens can do the test within 3 days after arrival. Considering that in Switzerland, where I started from, the PCR test cost was almost 200 US dollars while in Russia it’s only 20 US dollars, this option for Russian citizens is a huge help. The express PCR tests are available at the international airports of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, reducing the hassle of this travel requirement. The Russian airlines also provide fresh masks for free every 3 hours during the flight.
In post USSR countries like Russia, the older generation is still accustomed to being granted certain social services free of charge as it was during the Soviet era. So, the government is trying to keep up with these expectations by providing as much as possible to its citizens. There is a vaccine, and it became freely available to everyone (even for foreigners) in Russia in the beginning of February 2021, while western countries were still struggling with shortages and distribution logistics for the vaccines; however, many Russian people appear to have lost trust in their government and its institutions and are reluctant to accept the gift of a vaccine. These persons preferred to survive the pandemic on their own, relying only on their presumably good health and faith.
Among the people that I had a contact with, a majority claimed to have already had the coronavirus and didn’t bother to worry about it anymore. They didn’t even carry a mask with them, even though it is still required in certain places. For these carefree people, the management of various shops and restaurants kept a pile of new masks at the entrance just in case the health authorities would come for an inspection. Similarly, when I purchased an abonnement to a fitness center I presented myself at the reception, according to the requirements, in a mask and at the distance of 1,5 m while other customers were pushing directly to the reception desk without a mask. The personal trainers in this premium sport club were required to have a mask and so they had one, but attached to the name tag on their chest instead of wearing it on their face, again, just in case of an inspection. With the saunas and swimming pools, it was even easier: no masks, no tests, no pandemic limitations of any kind. In restaurants, the masks were seen only on waiters and most of them had their mask under their nose or hanging from an ear. Those more conscientious people who were constantly wearing a mask were viewed with pity, assuming that their health was not strong enough to withstand the risk of infection. Or even worst, wearing a mask could be seen as possibly being someone from the health authorities there to inspect and report on a failure to respect the regulations. I have accepted this demeaning image as a mask wearer in order to have a good chance of healthy return to Europe, while still enjoying all of the benefits of relative freedom in Russia.
On the way back to Switzerland, the Russian airline companies were very strict with travelers, checking the PCR test results and other documents numerous times at each point of control before boarding a flight. Similarly, upon arrival in Switzerland the passport control officers attentively studied the PCR test results before letting the traveler to pass through the border control.
It was a great opportunity for me to spend this winter in Russia and benefit from a certain freedom of activity. I also admire the strong Russian character in dealing with global tragedies such as the pandemic, but hope that the cooperation between the government and people will become more aligned in the future to face and successfully overcome this pandemic and other challenges.