Center Party politicians Mihhail Kõlvart and Yana Toom could inoculate themselves with all the available vaccines without it having any effect on people like Olga Vassiljevna from Lasnamäe. She is afraid of vaccines because she has too much information and no way of reliably analyzing which parts of it are true and which are false, journalist Anton Aleksejev says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.
In March, I took the cameras of "Aktuaalne kaamera" to the West Tallinn Central Hospital and Lasnamäe. Both stories were dedicated to showing how doctors, patients and other people perceive the coronavirus. The editors' desk decided to send me because I have already recovered from COVID-19 and would therefore pose less of a risk of catching it myself.
Russian-speaking patients were clearly in the majority at the hospital. "They probably do not comply with restrictions," a Russian-speaking nurse told me. As someone for whom Russian is the first language, I felt a pang of shame for the Russian people. Why aren't they doing what they are told and complying with the measures?
Of course, there are objective reasons for why more Russians than Estonians end up in the hospital. If around 40 percent of Estonians can afford to work remotely, then that figure is just 17 percent for Russians. And indeed, some patients knew they had been infected at work.
However, the average Covid patient is a pensioner, someone who no longer works. Whether Estonian or Russian. Where did they catch the virus – taking the bus, shopping or visiting family? There is no way to prove this hypothesis, which is not to say that I didn't try.
Last week, I visited Tallinn's Lasnamäe district every day to talk to ordinary people who in most cases turned out to be Russian-speaking. Yes, they go shopping and take the bus. Yes, they are bringing food to their parents who are complying with restrictions and staying home. But can we say that Estonians are not doing the same?
What then is so different about these Russians and Lasnamäe to make the virus so widespread here? Could the reason be that they are inhabiting their own sphere of information that is somehow fundamentally different from that of Estonians? It has been suggested that Estonians and Russians inhabit different information space for some time. Suggested by politicians, officials and civil society activists.
That is precisely why I asked everyone I talked to about their sources of information, television channels, preferred radio stations, newspapers and online news as well as social networks.
Something interesting happened. Everyone I spoke to seemed to get a little riled up when asked whether they felt uninformed because their sources of information differ from those of Estonians. Many, including grandmothers, watch the Estonian ETV+ channel. The Russian-language portals of Delfi and Postimees are also very popular. More so as the Russian versions of these portals are free to read, unlike their Estonian counterparts. Can we be sure every pensioner can afford to pay for news articles?
Local Russians know that President Kaljulaid went on a ski trip to Switzerland and that [PM] Kaja Kallas took ill despite playing by all the rules. They also keep an eye on the daily case rate and information on restrictions.
However, Russians have an objective advantage over their Estonian counterparts. They have access to a massive selection of Russian information sources and even though most of these are official networks, even there, no one is urging people to give up wearing a mask or refuse to be vaccinated.
It is true that Russia is praising its Sputnik V vaccine and badmouthing AstraZeneca's. But there is another nuance involved – while many Russians in Estonia are reluctant to be vaccinated using AstraZeneca's vaccine, relevant information was not missing from the Estonian media (ETV+, Postimees and Russian Delfi).
And if even a Russian pensioner knows that Denmark, Norway, Austria and other countries have suspended the use of AstraZeneca because of risk of thrombosis, it matters not whether the information came from the [Russian] Rossiya network or the Russian-language "Aktuaalne kaamera." The problem is not with the media but with AstraZeneca. It is only natural that Sputnik V appears more trustworthy in the eyes of Russians because the Russian media makes sure not to disseminate information to the contrary. While the Estonian media reports almost nothing about Sputnik V, neither negative nor positive.
We are left with social networks. If Estonians believe in Facebook, Russian Vkontakte is just as popular among their Russian-speaking compatriots. However, Russians again have a wider selection at their disposal as there are close to 100 million Russian bloggers in the world. Russian social networks have also become safe havens for those who do not trust the mainstream media.
While it is unimaginable for a critic of the Sputnik V vaccine to be given airtime on the official Rossiya network, they can appear on tens of thousands of social media groups that are also available to Russians in Estonia.
If our statistics show that over 60 percent of Estonians and a little over 40 percent of Russians are willing to be vaccinated, it should be read upside down to suggest that fewer than 40 percent of Estonians and over 50 percent of Russians do not believe in vaccines. When asked why, people from Lasnamäe say it is because they have many more sources and are better informed.
At the same time, polls in Russia suggest 60 percent of people are skeptical of vaccination, meaning that our Russian community does not differ much in this regard. And just as some people in Russia do not want Sputnik and would prefer Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, so do people here prefer Sputnik.
How did our Russian-speaking compatriots become such picky customers? The answer is the same – because they have more sources of information. [Mayor of Tallinn] Mihhail Kõlvart and [MEP] Yana Toom could inoculate themselves with all available vaccines without it having any effect on Olga Vassiljevna from Lasnamäe. She is afraid of vaccines because she has too much information and no way of reliably analyzing which parts of it are true and which are false. The Russian information sphere really is different from that of Estonians in that it is much wider and full of controversial information.
Would it change anything were Prime Minister Kaja Kallas to address the residents of Lasnamäe in perfect Russian and say: "Let us follow restrictions and get vaccinated as soon as possible!"?
Natalja from Lasnamäe already told the PM that she does not want to get vaccinated and regards coronavirus measures as pointless. "This is a free country," she said. And perhaps it is this statement that demonstrates she is our fellow countryman and not Vladimir Putin's. No one would even think of arguing something like that in Russia.
Editor: Marcus Turovski