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4 November 2021

Russia’s Covid death toll is even worse than it appears

The Russian authorities and the wider public are in denial about the severity of the pandemic.

By Felix Light

If Russia wasn’t setting new records for Covid deaths almost daily, you’d barely know there was a pandemic at all. Even with almost 1,200 Russians dying from the disease every day, Moscow in semi-lockdown and the rest of the country enjoying an 11-day “non-working week” aimed at arresting the spread of the virus, there is no sense of crisis. On 27 October, on the final night before the new restrictions, Moscow’s streets swelled with revellers, as bars and restaurants threw raucous, last-hurrah parties that felt rather like New Year’s Eve had come early.

Beneath the facade of normality, the situation is likely even worse than it appears. Russia’s excess death toll – calculated by comparing mortality rates with historical norms – shows over 700,000 extra dead, as against the 242,000 officially recorded. If attributed to coronavirus, as even some Kremlin figures have acknowledged they mostly ought to be, the glut of fatalities would place Russia as by far the worst-hit country in Europe.

Russia’s excess deaths have soared
Official Covid-19 deaths and estimated excess deaths per 100,000
Source: The Economist/World Mortality Dataset

The possible reasons for the discrepancy are complex. They range from Russia’s idiosyncratic method for counting cases – by which only deaths exclusively attributable to the virus are classified as Covid deaths – through to a degree of deliberate falsification by local officials looking to escape their superiors’ ire.

Alexei Raksha, a demographer who was sacked from the Russian state statistics agency for criticising its handling of Covid data, has claimed that official causes of death have, for years before the pandemic, been massaged in order to flatter political goals set from the centre.

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“The health ministry has been knee-deep in manipulations for years,” wrote Raksha. “Then along came Covid.”

By contrast, the reasons for the ever-worsening public health situation are much clearer. Russia lifted its first, and so far only, national lockdown in the summer of 2020, just in advance of the referendum that approved the constitutional rewrite allowing President Vladimir Putin to stay in office until 2036. Since then, the country has fought a rearguard action against Covid, cracking down only when the death toll becomes unacceptable. The rest of the time, the pandemic is simply one more fact of normal, everyday life.

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This summer, rules banning the unvaccinated from Moscow restaurants were junked within three weeks amid opposition from businesses. In September, even as cases and deaths began to surge, restrictions were only introduced after sensitive parliamentary elections were safely out of the way, though not without Russia’s revived Communist Party leveraging anti-vaccine rhetoric into a strong second-place finish.

The government is providing only minimal financial support for Moscow’s soft lockdown, under which businesses must close even as no actual controls on movement are imposed. A swift return to normality, therefore, looks likely. The capital’s mayor, the technocratic Sergei Sobyanin – previously a champion of aggressive anti-pandemic measures – has already announced he will not extend the lockdown, despite having made no obvious progress in reducing Moscow’s case load. His hand has been forced, in part, by widespread flouting of the rules by the business community.

But the Kremlin’s mixed messaging is far from the only culprit in Russia’s coronavirus debacle. Throughout the pandemic, polls have shown a consistent, if slim, majority of Russians unafraid of the virus, unwilling to take a vaccine, and even unconvinced that coronavirus itself is not a bespoke, human-made bioweapon. In so far as the government’s handling of the crisis registers as a live political issue, it does so almost exclusively in the form of resistance to lockdowns, mask mandates and vaccination orders. There is no popular demand for a tougher line, nor even much of an impulse to blame the government for the situation.

With a return to full lockdown a political no-go, Russia is running out of ways to turn the situation around. For months, the country’s vaccination programme has been stalled at around 30% of the population fully jabbed, and Russia’s anti-vax majority has so far been unmoved by ubiquitous public advertising and Putin’s own emotional appeals to get vaccinated. Many observers now anticipate a gradual tightening of the screws, with everyday life made eventually so uncomfortable for Russia’s unvaccinated that they have no choice but to get their jabs. As things stand, Moscow’s empty vaccination clinics give little reason to be optimistic.

[See also: How mistrust is fuelling a Covid-19 surge in Russia]

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