The official number of coronavirus cases in Russia as of today in 93 (a 47% jump from yesterday) but the number of reported deaths is still zero. If that seems miraculous, it could be because it’s probably not true.

“We sign a non-disclosure agreement, so we cannot give journalists’ information,” one physician told The Daily Beast. Asked about rumors that there are some 6,000 Russians known to have coronavirus symptoms, the doctor did not say that was wrong.

Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, however, vehemently denied such stories. “All these rumors we come across, irresponsible declarations about a huge number of infected patients in Moscow, are not true,” he said Sunday the television show A Week in Town. “Some politicians obviously want to inflame this topic, as often happens in difficult times. On the contrary, we are interested in immediately telling our citizens about novel coronavirus cases.”

The Daily Beast suggests there’s a very specific reason the numbers are being downplayed right now. As I wrote last week, President Putin has just finished laying the groundwork to make himself president for life. The final step in the process is set to take place next month:

In Russian terms, he’ll be the 21st century version of a czar. But there’s a hitch.

Although the Russian parliament passed the necessary amendments to the constitution on March 11 with a vote of 383 to 0, they are supposed to receive popular approval in a plebiscite scheduled for April 22. And if the coronavirus pandemic takes off in Russia before then—or, rather, can be seen to have taken off—the new czar might have to wait for his quasi-constitutional quasi-coronation. The Kremlin insists that in spite of the growing fear of an outbreak, the plebiscite will take place as scheduled.

So what we’re hearing from Putin is that there is “nothing critical” happening on the coronavirus front, the main sources of news about sick people in Russia are both fake and foreign: “Their goal is clear, to spread panic among our population,” Putin told a governmental conference on March 4.

As of this weekend, it was still business as usual in Russia:

 

Yesterday an expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences named Alexander Saversky told the Moscow Times, “It looks like our authorities are taking measures that make it look like they’re doing something without really doing something — and that is the correct move.” He added, “It’s better not to foment hysteria.”

However, today things are starting to change. The Mayor of Moscow (quoted above denying any cover up of cases) has just announced new restrictions similar to the ones being made here in the U.S. From the Moscow Times:

  • Moscow has banned all public events larger than 50 people from now until April 10, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said in a new decree. Older citizens are also advised to stay at home.
  • From March 21 to April 12, all schools and universities will be closed, Sobyanin said…
  • President Vladimir Putin has ordered the creation of a special working group within the State Council to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Putin put Sobyanin in charge of the new group, which will also include government officials.
  •  Russia’s Science and Higher Education Ministry recommended that higher educational institutions switch to distance learning from Monday.

So changes are belatedly happening but it’s unclear what motivated the sudden change of heart.