How many deaths from COVID is Russia covering up?

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The answer is a lot, but it may not be Putin and the Kremlin who are behind the cover-up — not directly. What may be happening is more of a Chernobyl scenario in which local authorities are afraid to tell Moscow the truth about how bad things are, not knowing what the consequences might be. So they lie to the government, and the government accepts that lie because it’s less embarrassing than the truth.

Russia’s horrible mishandling of the pandemic and the resulting human toll is an open secret in the country, though, says journalist Alexey Kovalev. “According to the official statistics at the time, tens of thousands of Russians were dying in 2020 of a mysterious pneumonia epidemic unrelated to COVID-19. This was hardly plausible. The more likely explanation: Russian regional authorities were writing off the majority of COVID-19 cases as ‘community-acquired pneumonia,'” he wrote recently, which reminds me of how some COVID truthers here in the U.S. tried to re-categorize deaths early in the pandemic. Not everyone with the virus is dying of COVID, they argued; some are dying with COVID, of other causes. That’s how Russia seems to be holding its official death toll down, even calling deaths from respiratory issues “viral pneumonia, unspecified” in some cases rather than attribute them to the coronavirus.

But there’s one number that doesn’t lie. The acid test of the pandemic’s impact on mortality is “excess deaths,” the number of people who die in excess of the number that’s typically seen in an uneventful year. Not all excess deaths last year were directly due to COVID — someone who killed themselves due to despair over lockdowns would be an indirect casualty, not a direct one — but they’re a better gauge of the severity of the disease than the dubious official government count is.

As of today, Russia has recorded just shy of 140,000 official COVID deaths. As of early last month, however, the number of excess deaths since the start of the pandemic stood at … 475,000. In April the Times looked at Russia’s excess deaths and found they were 28 percent higher than normal, a spike higher even than that of the United States. Adjusting for population, that means around one in 400 Russians died due to causes related to the pandemic versus one in 600 Americans. Ask an average person who’s following COVID news which countries have had the worst outcomes since last March and they’re apt to say the U.S., Brazil, India, Italy, possibly the UK. In reality Russia’s right in the mix, but their lies about the scale of the pandemic have kept them off the international media radar.

…Until recently. Americans are paying attention to Israel and Great Britain as they battle the B.1.617 “Delta” variant but they should pay attention to Russia to. Delta is rampaging across that country, threatening a new record in daily cases beyond even the worst of the winter wave:

Britain and especially Israel are nowhere near that kind of spike. Worse, Russia isn’t experiencing a flat daily death toll like those two countries are. Just the opposite:

The country officially recorded 737 deaths in the past 24 hours, its worst single-day number of the COVID era. God only knows what the true number is.

How much worse could it get? Is a full-blown India-style national catastrophe in the offing? Well, St. Petersburg just hosted a Euro 2020 quarterfinal match, which may or may not end up being a superspreader event. (“Pictures from the city’s fan zones showed many people without the mandatory covering of mouth and nose.”) Russia is also adamantly anti-lockdown, priding themselves on not following the example set by Europe and the United States. None of that would be hugely risky if the country had a vaccination rate as high as Israel’s or the UK’s, but that’s the problem — they’re facing a huge outbreak of Delta with less than 13 percent fully vaccinated. A low vaccination rate is what made India’s B.1.617 wave so ferocious and deadly. Now here’s Russia facing the same problem.

Why more Russians aren’t vaccinated is a complex question but Kovalev identifies a grim irony. Russian media has been so consumed with dunking on the west for its occasional vaccine setbacks that it seems to have convinced viewers that all COVID vaccines are dubious. They fed their native population a line of propaganda, as usual, and it worked — to the country’s potential ruin.

Instead of promoting safety measures and campaigning to get the public vaccinated, Russian state-owned media have spent an inordinate amount of time ridiculing other nations for their harsh lockdowns—which Russia never imposed—and trashing their vaccines. Not that Russians have much of a choice over which jab to get: Only the domestically produced Sputnik V, EpiVacCorona, and Covivac vaccines are permitted for use in Russia. One of these, EpiVacCorona, has been embroiled in a constant stream of scandal and skepticism about its efficacy and has been all but publicly accepted as a dud.

Television news programs and state news agencies, such as RIA Novosti, have gleefully amplified every complication and casualty from vaccines produced by BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca and gloated over every development hiccup. Unsurprisingly, vaccine skepticism is so rampant at these media outlets that the CEO of state news agency Rossiya Segodnya sent out a company-wide memo pleading the employees to get vaccinated and avoid the fate of three of their colleagues who died in intensive care in Moscow during a single week.

Meanwhile, Russian foreign broadcaster RT has been feeding Western audiences with anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories, comparing lockdowns and other restrictions to the Nazi occupation and apartheid.

Russia’s also done a poor job of manufacturing vaccines, delivering just 17 million of the 900 million doses it’s promised to foreign partners as of a few weeks ago. Per the available evidence, the irony is that their homegrown vaccine works very well. They have (or had) the means to contain the Delta forest fire. But Russians don’t trust their government and they really don’t trust the COVID vaccines after being force-fed disinformation for ages so uptake is rock-bottom.

The government is now resorting to a favorite tactic to increase the vaccination rate: Coercion. Unvaccinated people are currently banned from restaurants and coffee shops in Moscow (unless they’ve recovered from COVID in the last six months) and service-sector workers who aren’t vaccinated in the next week or two will be placed on unpaid leave. Are those strong-arm tactics enough to avert a disaster on the scale of India’s? Hope for the best.