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Medical face masks and portraits of medical workers who died from coronavirus infection, hang at a unofficial memorial in St Petersburg, Russia. Photo: AP

The cost of Russia’s low coronavirus mortality numbers

  • Russia has the world’s third highest tally of coronavirus cases, but relatively fewer deaths
  • Government challenged by reports that official statistics have not included all Covid-related deaths
Josh Nadeau

This past weekend, Russia was supplanted by Brazil as the nation with the second-largest number of coronavirus infections, after the United States. This was seen by some as a sign that Russia had made progress in its fight against the pandemic. The daily infection rate has fallen under 10,000 new cases and has remained there for more than 11 consecutive days.

This has prompted officials to start talking about when and how restrictions should begin to be phased out.

President Vladimir Putin declared via a televised videoconference that the Russian government had the “opportunity to once again focus on our current and long-term agenda”.

Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who himself has recovered from a recent bout with the virus, announced last week that 27 of the country’s 85 regions were ready to start rolling back restrictions. Airlines were set to increase flights by June 1 and measures were being discussed to protect the health of passengers. Moscow, the capital and epicentre of the country’s outbreak, has announced that government offices would soon be reopened as well as additional medical clinics. Russia, it seems, will be back in business soon.

These promising signs, however, have been met by claims that the country’s official death statistics do not correspond to the actual situation in the country. Some outlets, including The New York Times, have reported that Moscow’s death rate may be more than double official numbers. And just last week, more stories of under-reported numbers surfaced in regions like Siberia and the North Caucasus.

These figures present a flip side to the narrative that all is on the mend in the Russian Federation, suggesting that the government still has to come to grips with its first coronavirus wave.

Health advocates and independent outlets have been asking why the death rate has been relatively low compared to other countries with a similar number of infections, such as Brazil.

Russia also leads Spain, France, Italy and UK in cases, but has far fewer deaths. As of May 25, Russia had recorded 3,633 deaths and 353,427 cases. The US leads all nations with more than 1.6 million cases and almost 100,000 dead.

Reports from The New York Times and the Financial Times prompted strong responses from the Russian government. On May 11, both outlets published reports claiming that, while the official number of April deaths in Moscow amounted to just under 650, an analysis of historical data showed that there were 1700 more deaths that month than in April over the last five years.

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On May 13, the Moscow Health Department responded by saying that upwards of 60 per cent of coronavirus patient deaths were not being counted in official figures as the deaths were deemed to have been caused by other factors.

The government denounced as misinformation suggestions it had been under-reporting virus deaths. Spreading “fake news” is potentially a crime under a new Russian law that critics have claimed could be used to silence those who challenge official statistics.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends counting Covid-19 patient deaths as having been caused by the virus except in exceptional circumstances such as heart attack or fatal trauma injuries. They also require member states to post the deaths of all confirmed Covid-19 patients on a weekly basis.

The Russian Ministry of Health promotes a different set of recommendations. Those who died in hospitals are examined in the morgue, where local pathologists determine if the death was due to the virus or not. Those who die at home are not examined and are not included in the official count. These differences account for the discrepancy between the death statistics in Russia and countries such as the US or Germany, where most or even all patient deaths are included in official figures.

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Local outlets have continued to scrutinise the numbers provided by the government. Last Monday, independent outlet Mediazona issued a report claiming that, if the official statistics were true, then the mortality rate of medical personnel was up to 16 times higher than for patients – a rate higher than anywhere else in the world.

On Friday, Riga-based Russian language outlet Meduza reported that, of 509 medical workers who responded to a survey, one-third claimed that they were instructed not to list pneumonia-related deaths as having resulted from Covid-19, even though pneumonia is a common illness when Covid-19 spreads to the lungs. Heart attack, leukaemia, cancer or kidney failure were among the conditions listed by Moscow’s Health Department as the cause of up to 60 per cent of Covid-19 patient deaths in the city.


Russia’s coronavirus infections hit a single-day record high

Russia’s coronavirus infections hit a single-day record high

The discrepancies in the way statistics are collected and interpreted have led to concern that the country may be relying on “bad data” and thus may prove ill-equipped to curb the current wave and prevent a second coronavirus wave.

Official responses to the data have been mixed. Alexander Gintsburg, head of the Gamalei Research Centre for Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow (where Russia’s first human tests for potential vaccines were taking place), has claimed that the low death count was due to herd immunity in the country, rather than discrepancies in data interpretation.

Other officials, however, have asked the Russian population to prepare for higher death rates, even as the country reaches a peak in active infections. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who was one of the first major political figures to publicly dispute the narrative back in March that Russia would avoid the worst of the disease, warned on Wednesday that the death count in May would be significantly higher than it was in April. While the rate of new infections in the city were down, Sobyanin said the situation was “still far from ideal”.

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Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova agreed with Sobyanin and said on Friday that the country expected a spike in mortality numbers this month. President Putin has warned of the possibility of a second wave, particularly in the fall, but has celebrated the recent “stabilisation”.

This stabilisation, however, is proving to be more difficult in some of Russia’s more distant regions – and the way that statistics have been calculated may have proved a key factor in why national bodies have been slow to notice emerging disasters in the provinces.

This has proved especially true in Dagestan, a Muslim-majority republic on Russia’s southern border. On May 17, the region’s health minister said that more than 13,000 people in the republic had contracted either the coronavirus or community-acquired pneumonia (CAP), and that 657 people had died from these conditions to date.

Grave diggers carry a coffin at a funeral on the outskirts of Moscow. Photo: Reuters

While there had only been 3371 officially recorded infections and 29 deaths counted as of May 17, local activists and muftis have drawn attention to how many of the sick have died at home and were buried in “mass traditional funerals”, ignored by statistics. Appeals for help were made on social media as well as to Putin directly, who remarked that they “required urgent attention”.

The matter of how statistics were being collected has proved controversial in other regions as well. Last week, local outlets in Siberia claimed that deaths in two regions (Omsk and Irkutsk) officially attributed to Covid-19 were somehow not included in figures reported to Moscow.

Doubt in the government’s capacity to collect and interpret data could not have arrived at a worse time. Official response to the coronavirus in the country has already impacted trust in government institutions, with many top officials having fallen ill with the virus after having spent weeks playing it down.

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Along with Prime Minister Mishustin, Education and Science Minister Valery Falkov, State Duma deputy Oksana Pushkina, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova and Construction Minister Vladimir Yakushev have all tested positive for the virus. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, has been hospitalised in Moscow with symptoms similar to Covid-19, though it has yet to be confirmed whether he has the virus or not. Kadyrov stated in March that people who violate quarantine in his republic should be killed.

Putin’s approval ratings have suffered in particular, and in a year when he had planned a referendum on constitutional changes that would allow him to consolidate power as president for up to 16 additional years. The referendum, originally slated to have taken place on April 22, was postponed and may occur as early as late June.

Along with the rest of the world, Russia is undergoing not only a health crisis, but a crisis of confidence in its leadership. How and when it registers mortality rates has generated ongoing controversy at home and abroad. The country has many reasons to celebrate as it continues to reach the peak of its active infections, and a commitment to statistical rigour and consistency may go a long way to ensuring that disasters like in Dagestan don’t emerge across Russia’s provinces, and that a second wave will be effectively prevented.