World·Analysis

Putin praises Trump's 'vitality' in wishing him well, but contrast between their COVID-19 precautions is stark

News that Donald Trump had contracted the coronavirus with a month to go before the U.S. presidential election was met with a mix of bewilderment, humour and intrigue in Russia Friday, with President Vladimir Putin saying Trump's "vitality" would help him pull through. The two leaders have taken very different approaches to protecting themselves in the pandemic.

Unlike Trump, Putin has kept himself in a strict coronavirus-free bubble

U.S. President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin have taken very different approaches when it comes to avoiding the coronavirus. (Jim Watson, Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

News that Donald Trump had contracted the coronavirus with a month to go before the U.S. presidential election was met with a mix of bewilderment, humour and intrigue in Russia Friday.

State TV hosts, who frequently amplify or reinforce Kremlin messaging, spent the day pondering the implications for the upcoming election but also reinforcing the notion that the U.S. president's illness was yet another indication of the fading greatness of a once-great superpower.

"Well, we hope Donald Trump gets well," said Olga Skabyeva, host of the talk show 60 minutes, before breaking into a grin and delivering the punchline.

"Donald, hold on. Melania, hold on, too! No matter how you spin it, you're still our candidate !" she said, playing up a common theme on state TV: that Russia "owns" Trump. 

Investigations by U.S. congressional committees, the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller have all concluded that Russian security services were behind a hacking and disinformation campaign that tried to tip the election in Trump's favour in 2016.

The notion that Trump is indebted to President Vladimir Putin is frequently cited by Kremlin-friendly pundits as if it were a badge of honour for the Russian leader.

WATCH | Putin wishes Trump speedy recovery:

Putin wishes Trump swift recovery from coronavirus 

CBC News

4 months agoVideo
4:57
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent U.S. President Donald Trump a telegram wishing him well after Trump announced he tested positive for coronavirus. Putin plans to be inoculated with the Russian-made coronavirus vaccine. 4:57

Election meddling?

Later in the same 60 Minutes program, Alexey Zhuravlov, a deputy in the Duma, the Russian parliament, suggested that Trump contracting the coronavirus was hindering Russia's plans to interfere again in 2020.

"You mean, we meddle and we meddle — and it's all for nothing?" co-host Yevgeny Popov asked sarcastically.

"COVID just comes in and messes up the meddling?"  

Putin speaks frequently about how he believes the era of liberal democracies is fading and that a new multi-polar universe, in which the U.S. isn't the dominant player, is emerging. 

'Something is broken in the system,' Russian conservative political pundit Dmitri Drobnitski said of the recent developments in the U.S. (Skype)

Trump's chaotic term as president, U.S. disengagement from some global institutions and his government's poor handling of the coronavirus crisis — and now his own predicament — are all seen by some in and around the Russian government as validation of that view.

"A lot of Russian people sympathized with Donald Trump — I was one of them — because he was disrupting that establishment," said conservative political analyst Dmitri Drobnitski.

"So, how do we react now? Now, we just say something is broken in the system."

WATCH | What Trump was doing in the days before his diagnosis:

Timeline of Trump events and contacts leading up to positive coronavirus test

CBC News

4 months agoVideo
4:15
The CBC's Laura McQuillan breaks down U.S. President Donald Trump's activities and contacts in the days and hours leading up to his positive COVID-19 diagnosis. 4:15

White House vaccine

Others seized on Trump's positive coronavirus test to emphasize how much better they believe Russia has weathered the global pandemic than other nations.

The head of the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, which is developing Russia's much-hyped Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, offered to help heal Trump.

"I think that if they officially turn to the Russian authorities, we will be able to help them," said Alexander Gintsberg in Sputnik, a Kremlin-funded online news source. 

Gintsberg also offered White House employees a chance to be inoculated with Russia's new vaccine, which has not yet undergone Phase 3 randomized, controlled clinical trials to establish its safety and efficacy.

A disinfectant tunnel reportedly used to sanitize visitors coming in and out of Putin's residence outside Moscow. (TASS)

As for Putin, he took the high road Friday by sending a telegram to Trump in which he suggested the U.S. leader's "vitality" would help him pull through.

"I hope that your inherent vitality, good spirits and optimism will help you cope with the dangerous virus," the telegram said, according to the Interfax news agency.

The note was strikingly similar in tone and content to one he sent to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he got the virus in April.

Coronavirus bubble

Notably, however, Putin has taken a very different approach to protecting himself from COVID-19 than Trump has. 

Whereas Trump has frequently mocked mask wearers, including on the presidential debate stage Tuesday, held large rallies and often waded into large groups of people, Putin has essentially spent the last eight months or so in a coronavirus-free bubble.

Most of his public appearances have been via video conference.

Putin takes part in a video conference call in June. He has maintained a tight bubble around himself, requiring those who meet with him to quarantine beforehand or to pass through disinfecting tunnels when visiting his residence. (Alexei Babushkin/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

He has rarely met with the public or journalists in person since March, and when he has, those who went near him had to spend time in quarantine beforehand.

During the celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of the Second World War in June, every aging veteran, including men and women in their late 90s, who stood with Putin on the podium had to spend two weeks in isolation.

Russian state TV has also shown video of special "disinfectant tunnels" that anyone who comes and goes from his official residence outside Moscow must pass through and get sprayed by a misted disinfecting solution. 

"Additional measures that are undertaken by the president and his inner circle [are] OK. They are the leaders, and they protect the country, so they can take care of themselves a little bit more," said Drobnitski, the political analyst. 

At this year's Victory Day Parade in Red Square, which was postponed to June because of the pandemic, Putin required veterans with whom he met to quarantine for 14 days before the event. (Alexei Nikolskyi/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

Dozens of Duma deputies contracted virus

Even so, a strikingly large number of senior Russian politicians have come down with the virus.

At the most recent count, 60 members of the 450-member Duma had contracted COVID-19, with one death, a 67-year-old Communist Party deputy.  

In the last week alone, the Moscow Times reports, eight deputies had to be hospitalized. As well, the man who was effectively leading Russia's fight against the virus, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, also became seriously ill with the virus in the spring. 

COVID-19 cases have climbed significantly in the past week, especially in the capital Moscow.

A health worker tests a man for the coronavirus at a clinic in Moscow this week. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

"The numbers are growing, and they are growing fast," Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said Friday . 

"It's serious. I think the number of [new] infections will get close to 3,000 a day soon."

Nearing peak

Nationwide, the number of new coronavirus cases is closing in on 10,000 a day, nearing the peak that the caseload hit this spring. Russia is the world's fourth most-infected country after the U.S., India and Brazil, with nearly 1.2 million confirmed positive cases. However, it has officially reported a relatively low 21,000 deaths, considerably fewer than most European nations. 

Hospitals that had been closed are now being reopened and re-purposed to handle surging hospitalizations.

Putin has suggested that with the new vaccine already being distributed to thousands of government workers in Russia,  the worst of the epidemic could soon be over.

Notably however, Putin has apparently not yet received the vaccine himself, although early on, he said one of his daughters had.

His spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said Putin was still considering whether to get the inoculation,

"When he does it, we'll announce it," said Peskov.

WATCH | Trump taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center:

Trump goes to the hospital

News

4 months agoVideo
1:39
U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he boards Marine One on his way to hospital for COVID-19 treatment. 1:39

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a national reporter for CBC News on radio, TV and online, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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