Study Suggests Russia Undercounting Coronavirus Deaths by 600 Percent

Students wearing face masks conduct experiments during a chemistry practical class at the Moscow State University in Moscow on February 8, 2021, as in-person classes resume in Russian universities amid the ongoing coronavirus disease pandemic. (Photo by Natalia KOLESNIKOVA / AFP) (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)

A study from researcher Dmitry Kobak of Germany’s Tubingen University that Radio Free Europe highlighted on Wednesday suggested the true number of coronavirus deaths in Russia is about six times higher than the official count of 57,600.

Kobak calculated an “undercount coefficient,” which measures the difference between officially designated coronavirus deaths and “excess deaths,” meaning the number of reported fatalities that exceeds the average number of deaths for the same time period before the pandemic.

Kobak noted that tracking coronavirus fatalities is difficult and highly subjective because not all countries test for the disease with the same level of consistency and there are heated arguments over how to distinguish between people who died from the Chinese coronavirus and people who died with the disease.

For this reason, there is an “emerging academic consensus … that the most objective way to compare death toll in different countries is via excess mortality.” The idea is that different nations might define “coronavirus deaths” according to varying standards, some test more rigorously for the presence of the disease than others, and some could be deliberately attempting to conceal how many coronavirus deaths they have experienced, but the total number of people who died in a month tends to be openly available information, and it is not difficult to detect huge surges of mortality in 2020 or 2021 versus the same month in 2019 or earlier.

Kobak noted that simply adding up the number of confirmed coronavirus deaths tracked by Russia’s population agencies produces a number three times higher than the official number of coronavirus fatalities the Kremlin claims — 116,000 for the period April-November 2020, versus 57,600 official coronavirus deaths posted by the Russian central government.

Russia’s statistics agency, Rosstat, admitted this discrepancy was problematic on Monday and revised its standards producing an updated official total that tracks more closely with the number Kobak tallied up. The Kremlin denied deliberately falsifying the numbers, claiming its coronavirus task force was simply being too strict in defining “coronavirus deaths” and was relying on reports from scattered medical facilities, instead of using the data from civil registry offices as Rosstat does.

Kobak said there is still a big problem with Russia’s official figures because the difference between even the higher number of coronavirus deaths and the number of “excess deaths” above the previous yearly average is incredibly high in Russia. There are excess deaths everywhere (except, according to Kobak’s research, Colombia) but, in most countries, the total of excess deaths is less than 1.5 times the number of officially reported Chinese coronavirus fatalities. 

In Russia, excess deaths are 6.5 times reported coronavirus fatalities, by far the highest coefficient of any country in the study. The next-worst countries in the survey were Poland, Mexico, and Iran with 2.9, 2.5, and 2.4, respectively.

The Kremlin said Wednesday that its inexplicably huge number of excess deaths reflected the “harsh reality” of the global pandemic.

“Unfortunately, the excess mortality in 2020 appeared in nearly every country of the world and it’s at levels we wouldn’t like to see. It’s a harsh reality we, all countries of the world, face in the era of the pandemic,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

“We responded adequately to the threat of coronavirus and continue to respond adequately,” he insisted, hailing the Russian health care system as “very effective in proving its high-mobilization potential” during the pandemic.

Peskov did not advance any theories for why Russia’s harsh reality is a 6.5 coefficient of undercounted deaths while everyone else’s is 2.9 or less, beyond suggesting there could be “peculiarities” in the data furnished by some “regions” of his country.

Kobak tackled that issue in his report, pointing out that Moscow and St. Petersburg were the only regions of Russia where reported coronavirus deaths tracked closely with excess mortality. “In most other regions, excess mortality vastly outnumbers the reported [Chinese coronavirus] Covid-19 mortality, both in the numbers updated each day and in the later monthly reports of Covid‐related deaths,” he wrote, pointing out that some of those regions were much worse than the average undercount coefficient of 6.5 for Russia. Some regions had excess deaths that were 20 times higher than reported coronavirus fatalities; in the Bashkortostan region, excess deaths were 110 times higher than official coronavirus numbers.

“This can hardly have a benign explanation and suggests concealment and/or misreporting of Covid‐19 deaths. Indeed, there are media reports discussing overflowing hospitals, packed morgues, and deliberate misdiagnosing of Covid‐19 as pneumonia. It may not be a coincidence that Chechnya, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan are among the regions for which there is also statistical evidence of data manipulation in election results,” Kobak noted trenchantly.


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