After US President Donald Trump announced that he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a telegram of encouragement to the first couple, wishing them a speedy recovery.
As the coronavirus has spread across the world, experts have drawn parallels between the public responses from Trump and Putin, who have downplayed the severity of it. The US and Russia are among the nations with the most COVID-19 cases. Both leaders have largely failed to adequately react to the spread of the virus, reopened their economies too soon after shutdowns, and wrongfully claimed that the virus had been defeated.
But Trump's and Putin's personal actions to protect themselves from the virus couldn’t be more different.
Trump has refused to regularly wear a mask, continued to work in a busy White House, and appeared in public frequently, holding nomination ceremonies and packed rallies with supporters, shrugging off the advice of his own health officials even as the death toll from the virus surpassed 200,000 people last month.
Meanwhile, Putin has been living in a strictly regulated bubble to keep him away from the virus.
In April, the Russian president moved from the Kremlin to his palatial residence outside Moscow and has since conducted state affairs mostly via videoconferencing. In June, the Kremlin said a “disinfection tunnel” had even been installed at the residence through which all visitors must pass before seeing the president.
“Extra precautions are justifiable and understandable where the president is concerned,” the Guardian quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying at the time.
On Wednesday, Proekt, an independent Russian investigative outlet, reported more details about the lengths to which the Kremlin has gone to keep Putin safe. Meetings with the Russian leader have been severely limited; anyone who does meet him must first endure a strict two-week quarantine at a health center with regular checkups, pass a COVID-19 test, and then finally pass through the “disinfection tunnel,” Proekt said, citing sources close to the Kremlin. Even then, meetings are conducted with social distancing in place.
Sightings of Putin anywhere other than through a screen and sitting at his desk have been extremely rare since the start of the pandemic. One notable sighting came in June when he appeared front and center at a military parade to mark the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. Putin was seated in a crowd that included elderly veterans of the war; the government had put them up in a health resort for 14 days beforehand.
Trump, meanwhile, has continued to travel across the nation for campaign events, including events in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and New Jersey this week, as well his first presidential debate against former vice president Joe Biden, which featured an audience in Ohio on Tuesday. Along with him, he has brought members of Congress and White House staffers onto Air Force One.
Unlike the White House press pool, which has limited the number of reporters who attend the president’s briefings but continued to function, Kremlin pool reporters who saw Putin on an almost daily basis before the pandemic have not seen him in months. The only images of the Russian leader on Twitter and Telegram accounts operated by pool reporters for the state-run news agency RIA Novosti are those in which he appears from his residence.
“The work of the president is practically not covered by journalists. Except for a personal cameraman, a photographer from the state TASS [news agency] and a VGTRK film crew, no one is allowed to attend events. And all the journalists in the Kremlin pool write their reports while watching the [president’s] broadcasts on the Russia-24 channel,” Proekt wrote.
Putin, who is often pictured in Kremlin photo ops working out, riding shirtless on horseback through the Russian mountains, and swimming in the Black Sea, appears to be in good health. But at almost 68 — his birthday is Oct. 7 — he is about three years past the average life expectancy of a Russian man. With no succession plan apparently in place — and having just changed the constitution for him to be able to rule until 2036 — Russia would likely descend into chaos if the president got sick and died.
And the coronavirus has on several occasions managed to infiltrate Putin’s administration and the Russian government. Peskov contracted it in May and was hospitalized. And since spring, at least three Russian ministers have tested positive for it, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Minister of Culture Olga Lyubimova, and Minister of Housing Vladimir Yakushev. The head doctor of a leading Moscow hospital who also fell ill with the virus shortly after he appeared in a photo op with Putin during a March visit.
With just 32 days before the presidential election, the White House physician said Friday that Trump will “continue carrying out his duties without disruption.”
In relative isolation and from the comfort and safety of his residence outside Moscow, Putin wished him the best.
“I am sure that your inherent vitality, vigor and optimism will help you overcome the dangerous virus,” the Russian president wrote in his telegram.