02/07/2020, 11.35
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The Chinese virus infects Russia and its economy

by Vladimir Rozanskij

Russian tourists repatriated from China. Their odyssey ends in a Siberian sanatorium. The drop in oil prices. Chinese imports fall; infrastructures (gas and oil pipelines) at risk; losses on payments in yuan. Apocalyptic forecasts and conspiracy theories. Silence on the number of sick people.


Moscow (AsiaNews) - The spread of coronavirus from China risks having worrying consequences even in Russia, where Chinese immigration is substantial. The number of Russian tourists in China is also high, and their repatriation to Tyumen airport in western Siberia was organized in a hurry on military aircraft, unheated and without toilets. On the Znak.com website, some passengers recounted their humiliating adventure: transported for journeys of even 10-13 hours, seated on the floor in parallel rows, with only dry toilets under improvised tents. From the airport, passengers were transferred to a sanatorium in the area, equipped for the occasion and completely isolated from the outside world.

A greater emergency concerns the consequences of the virus on the Russian economy. As China is the world's largest buyer of energy, the collapse in the purchase of oil equates to the reduction of huge quantities of imports from the OPEC countries and from Russia itself. The value of the Brent barrel at the beginning of 2020 was around $ 70, now it is around $ 55, and every drop in oil prices means big trouble for the Russian economy, together with that of the other neighbors of the People's Republic of China, from Vietnam to Japan.

The panic sparked by the crisis does not only concern energy products, but also many other products, such as metals, coal, fuel oil, wood and other low industrial processing elements. The areas most at risk are primarily Siberia and the Far East, where trade and travel in both directions are interrupted: China traditionally exports large quantities of fruit and vegetables to these territories, which is now disappearing from markets and shops.

Since 2014, the year of the beginning of the conflict with Ukraine and of the western sanctions, Russia has tried to increasingly orient its economic exchanges towards the East. Now the Russians must thank that China has responded to this turnaround in a rather limited way; if the "eastern turn" that Putin craved had fully taken place, the country would today fall into the most complete economic disaster.

In 2019, 17% of Russian foreign trade developed in the Chinese direction, much more than in previous years, but still much less than towards the entire European Union, which engages the Russian market for over 40%. Still, huge funding has been committed in recent years to developing gas and oil pipelines, and other forms of energy transportation to China; even Russian dollar  reserves have been largely converted into Chinese currency. The yuan was not previously a currency of great prospect, and today the losses are significant.

Information about the coronavirus in the Russian media is evolving into real apocalyptic scenarios. Even on state channels, conspiracy theories abound, on whether it was a random or planned leak from Chinese laboratories, or even a secret American operation against eastern enemies. Conjectures about who could benefit from the epidemic, from the pharmaceutical industries to large sectors of the economy, are widespread.

The Russian Ministry of Health is organizing itself to "to deal with a possible mass spread of the virus" in the country, pending the prognosis on suspected infections, without any published data having been provided yet. The first cases of suspected infection were reported a week ago, after which subsequent and updated lists were not released.

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