Russia, COVID, and Social Capital: How Can Social Capital Explain Vaccination Rates?


By Eugenia Hanniffy


Russia was the first country in the world to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, in August 2020. This is remarkable when compared to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the US Food and Drink Administration (FDA), who authorized the emergency use of the vaccine by BioNTech in December 2020, and the use of AstraZeneca and Moderna in January 2021. The vaccine race has stimulated international discussion and concern over the legitimacy of Sputnik V. With that, we would expect to see Russia vaccinating its population much earlier than their European and American counterparts. Despite international health experts declaring Sputnik V to be “safe and effective”, it has still not been approved by the EMA and the WHO, and its domestic uptake can only be described as unsuccessful, if not disastrous.


According to Reuters, as of November 2021, less than thirty-five percent of Russians are fully vaccinated, and less than half have received at least one dose. Russia is leading the average daily number of deaths reported in the world, with over half a million COVID-related deaths and the highest recorded number of cases per day, at approximately forty thousand cases daily. The tragic outcome of the unsuccessful Russian vaccine roll-out has caused panic among state officials, leading them to impose lockdowns and mandatory vaccinations in workplaces. The mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, introduced a raffle and offered free cars to encourage Muscovites to attend vaccine centers.


International and local independent media outlets, varying from Reuters and the BBC to Meduza, have been reporting on the country’s situation since July 2021, pointing to low uptakes and expressing concerns surrounding an underreporting of COVID-19 deaths by state officials. However, social scientists and journalists such as Galpin and Kovalev have tied the low vaccine uptake and lack of faith in Sputnik V to what they see as low levels of social capital between Russian authorities and citizens that existed long before the pandemic.


According to Reuters, as of November 2021, less than thirty-five percent of Russians are fully vaccinated, and less than half have received at least one dose. Russia is leading the average daily number of deaths reported in the world, with over half a million COVID-related deaths and the highest recorded number of cases per day, at approximately forty thousand cases daily.

Understanding Social Capital

Social capital refers to resources that individuals obtain through networks and institutions, such as trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation. When social capital in a country is high, trust in institutions and other members of society is the norm, the element of reciprocity induces transparency, and citizens are encouraged to participate in communal activities. This applies to political culture within a country - transparency and willingness to cooperate encourages citizens to engage with state institutions and voice their opinions on matters regarding their community or country, allowing for democracy to flourish. The collapse of the Soviet Union has left an impact on social capital in Russia. With a rise in economic inequality and the integration of corruption into the state apparatus, Russian citizens have become disillusioned with democracy and less likely to believe that national institutions operate in their favor. Therefore, when the global pandemic first crossed the Russian border, orders of lockdown and stringent restrictions of movement were met with doubts, blog posts, and online articles, questioning the existence of the virus.


Understanding social capital has allowed social scientists to explore the relationship between levels of trust, strong community ties, and the severity of the effects of COVID-19 within a geographical area. Christos Makridis and Cary Wu have investigated geographical differences on the impact of COVID-19 and social capital in the United States. They find that the higher the level of interpersonal responsibilities there are in a community, the higher the levels of social distancing and hygienic practices. This mechanism can be applied to Russia. Currently, a team in the Higher School of Economics in Moscow is investigating the link between lower trust levels in Russia and counter pandemic measures. Lower engagement in public health guidelines can be a significant factor in the spread of the virus further among the communities.


The collapse of the Soviet Union has left an impact on social capital in Russia. With a rise in economic inequality and the integration of corruption into the state apparatus, Russian citizens have become disillusioned with democracy and less likely to believe that national institutions operate in their favor.

Is Russia the Problem?

A point in defense to the current administration is that vaccine uptake and lower levels of trust are not exclusive to Russia. Mistrust in vaccines can spread to other regions in the EU periphery such as the Balkans. Bulgaria, with the lowest rate of vaccination in the EU, at 21.8 percent, is witnessing a rise in fake vaccine certificates and skepticism over the severity of the virus among young people and healthcare professionals. Greece, with 63 percent of its population vaccinated, is also experiencing a concerning rise in the use of fake vaccine certificates and levels of anti-vaxxer protests. Writing for Euronews, Aleksandar Bezar reports that the doubt of citizens, as explained by locals, is all a part of the mentality that has pre-existed the pandemic. However, unlike in Greece or Bulgaria, in which democratic institutions operate to a certain extent, the Russian population does not have the luxury to express its dissatisfaction through political parties, fair elections, or protests.


Although lockdowns in large cities and mobility restrictions can, in theory, help slow the spread of the virus, they only work if citizens have a sense of interpersonal responsibility and have trust in national health authorities. Mandatory vaccines will not help increase trust levels but drive the negative opinions Russian citizens have towards the government.

It is clear that the mobilization tactics, be it through coercion or free gifts, are not working. Skepticism is ingrained in the Russian mentality to the point that they have less trust in their healthcare facilities and disengage from public health measures. This is a bad image for the current Putin administration. Low levels of trust in public policy may be seen to undermine the leadership’s legitimacy; something Putin would not wish foreign observers to see. Although lockdowns in large cities and mobility restrictions can, in theory, help slow the spread of the virus, they only work if citizens have a sense of interpersonal responsibility and have trust in national health authorities. Mandatory vaccines will not help increase trust levels but drive the negative opinions Russian citizens have towards the government. If the authorities are not willing to conduct elections that are not marred by fraud, as they have reported to be in the past, or allow people to go to the streets and protest the government’s conduct of the pandemic, it is worthwhile for the Russian authorities to take these low figures seriously. They could be a strong indicator that the levels of trust across the population towards the government are lower than they may believe and that it is time to reevaluate how the regime makes decisions and how it can obtain the trust of its citizens to ensure its survival.