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Despite Hundreds Of Daily COVID-19 Deaths In Russia, Moscow Streets Are Bustling

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Many countries are going back into lockdown as governments warn of rising cases of COVID-19 infections. But in Russia, authorities deny the country is facing a third wave. They point to a sharp drop in infections from a peak in December and less than 400 deaths per day throughout April. As NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow, regardless of how dangerous the situation may really be, life in the Russian capital is practically back to normal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED STREET MUSICIAN: (Singing in Russian).

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: After the last of the winter snow has melted in Moscow, a street musician heralds the start of spring on a balmy evening. It feels like half the city is out, filling the parks and crowding into restaurants and bars.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KIM: I've just arrived at the central market. It's sort of like a giant food court on three levels with its own DJ. There's Chinese food, Israeli, Korean, Italian, you name it. It's absolutely packed in here, and nobody I can see is wearing a mask.

DZHEM AL-SHURAI: As you see, all the people around us in the bar are not scared - nobody wearing masks, no social distance, nothing.

KIM: I meet entrepreneur Dzhem Al-Shurai with his wife Nadia, who are enjoying a drink.

Are you nervous that nobody is wearing a mask here?

NADIA AL-SHURAI: No. No. Definitely no. We don't do this often. Maybe it's first time we come for fun from the beginning of the year. But we're not scared.

KIM: Nadia and Dzhem say they have not forgotten the peak of the pandemic in December, when both of them and so many of their friends got sick. If cases start picking up again, they say they'll consider getting the Russian-made vaccine, Sputnik V. But for now, they feel Russia has turned the corner.

N AL-SHURAI: We had first wave and second wave in the end of last year. So now, I don't see another wave in Russia.

KIM: The Kremlin insists the COVID-19 situation is under control, even though some government officials have been warning of a third wave. Many Russians have let down their guard, and by the end of April, only about 7% of Russian adults had been fully vaccinated.

Back at the food court, I talked to 22-year-old Nikita Sherbatyuk. He says he's ready to get vaccinated, but he's too lazy to go through the trouble of signing up.

NIKITA SHERBATYUK: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "In Moscow, people couldn't care less about catching the virus," he says. And the only restrictions he's seen is that in some places you still have to wear a mask.

SHERBATYUK: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Sherbatyuk says he worked as a food delivery man during the peak of the pandemic and had contact with up to 50 people a day. Since he never got sick, he says he's not afraid. Alexander Bakayev, who mans a kebob stand, agrees.

ALEXANDER BAKAYEV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "The situation is completely relaxed," he says. Bakayev says he's tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, and that's why he's taking a wait-and-see attitude with the vaccine.

BAKAYEV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "To stay healthy," he says, "everyone should work out and eat kebab."

Even some Russians who work in science take the same carefree attitude. Valeriya Barzanova, who's having dinner with a friend, tells me she studies the genetic code of viruses.

VALERIYA BARZANOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: I'm not sure if she's joking when she tells me she works specifically on the coronavirus, but she says she gets tested regularly and hasn't gotten sick.

BARZANOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: She says she'd only get the vaccine if she planned to travel abroad. But for now, she doesn't see the need. I ask Barzanova if she's nervous about not being vaccinated.

BARZANOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "No," she says. "Two waves have passed already, and people are tired of being scared." Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.