Russian independent observers and journalists—including me and my colleagues at Meduza—already knew something was terribly off with Russia’s handling of the pandemic in late spring of 2020. We had looked at the numbers and recognized that COVID-19 deaths were being underreported in many regions of Russia. 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.”
There is no evidence of a cover-up ordered from the top. More likely, regional governorates were simply being discreet to avoid being the bearer of bad news to the Kremlin. Underreporting COVID-19 cases in the early stages of the pandemic plausibly made many Russians question the existence of the virus or lulled them into a false sense of security, although there is no poll data to back this up. What’s certain is that by November 2020, according to independent polling institute Levada, the majority of Russians did not trust their government’s COVID-19 figures: 33 percent thought them too low, while 28 percent believed they were exaggerated.