Russia’s number-driven coronavirus dilemma


A Moscow doctor’s jibe about their COVID-19 dilemma, "We’ll find out only in about 30 years on HBO," referring to the channel’s popular ‘Chernobyl’ series, which documents some of the lesser known facts about the disaster, puts the country’s statistical inconsistencies with regard to COVID-19 in a nutshell.

For months the country reported strikingly low infection rates, but it would seem that the virus had finally caught up with Russia. Despite closing the border with China on January 30, screening incoming passengers and finally halting all incoming air traffic Russia failed to keep the pandemic at bay. Russia and Brazil were vying for the second place in highest number of infections and Brazil overtook Russia only recently. However, it’s still ahead of Brazil in terms of active cases, with over 224,504. According to The Moscow Times, Russia confirmed 8,338 new coronavirus infections Wednesday, bringing the country’s official number of cases to 370,680.

But to the country’s credit its death rate is low, with only 3,968 deceased. Or is it? The Moscow Times refutes this, reporting that 233 percent more coronavirus-positive patients had died in at least two regions than reported in the total count. But the country has stubbornly stood by its classification method, according to the local newspaper.

Apparently, Russia does not automatically list COVID-19 as the cause of death even if the deceased tested positive for the coronavirus. For comparison, the United States and many European countries, inclusive of Italy, automatically classify deaths as caused by the coronavirus, if the deceased tested positive. According to pulmonologist who helped write the Moscow Health Department’s rules for classifying coronavirus deaths, Andrei Chernyayev, in future counts Russia is to list death in two categories; deaths specifically from COVID-19 and deaths of people who had the virus but weren’t killed by it.

According to Higher School of Economics demographer, Sergei Timonin, quoted in The Moscow Times, pathologists decided that the virus did not play a decisive role in the deaths of a larger number of patients who were tested positive for the coronavirus. Consequently, COVID-19 was not mentioned as the cause of death. In Lawfare article ‘How Has Russia Responded to COVID-19?’ Patrick Kennelly points out that, when Russia reported just 253 coronavirus infections, the number of pneumonia cases in Moscow increased by 37 percent, according to Russia’s state-owned statistics agency, leading analysts to allege that COVID-19 deaths were being swept under the carpet.

Medusa article ‘Permission to die: rejected How Russia’s fight against COVID-19 relies on fiddled statistics’ alleges that the Health Ministry instructed health officials to attribute deaths to causes other than COVID-19. According to The Moscow Times, Moscow officials believe that as much as 60 percent of COVID-19 deaths are missing from the official total. Since Wednesday, as per Health Ministry directive, asymptomatic coronavirus patients will not be included in the daily count, despite evidence that asymptomatic carriers can also transmit the virus. Moreover, although the government has reportedly carried out over four million tests, The Moscow Times alleges they are faulty and that false negatives lead to pathologists not registering certain deaths as due to COVID-19.

With 101,802 active cases and 2,183 deaths, Moscow is the epicenter of Russia’s coronavirus outbreak. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, three ministers and Putin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov have tested positive for the virus. According to Lawfare, in major cities, nurses and doctors are resigning in protest over conditions, and sick doctors are being forced to continue to treat patients. Moscow’s main coronavirus hospital, in Kommunarka, currently experiencing an exodus of nurses and medical personnel, is a case in point.

Reports of food, protection gear and sterile medical equipment shortages is rampant. An outbreak lead to the Saint Petersburg Vredena Institute being sealed off in April 9, with between 500 to 700 medical personnel still inside. According to The Guardian, medical workers are falling prey to the virus by the hundreds and, in fact, according to an unofficial list compiled by Russian and Belarussian doctors, 305 medics have died from the virus.

On March 30, a lockdown was announced in Moscow, a city of 12.5 million people, with just four hours’ notice. On April 15, Moscow instituted mandatory digital passes for using public or private transportation. QR passes were issued using a mobile app and on the first morning the passes went into effect, police checked the passes manually, causing huge crowds to pack metro stations. Two weeks later Moscow experienced an 11-day spike in infections, reported Politico. According to Euronews, the spike in coronavirus positive cases came after Russia President Vladamir Putin delegated the responsibility of easing lockdown restrictions to regional governors.

There are also reports that Russian authorities were lackadaisical in screening and quarantining of those who returned from abroad. Politico writer Michele A. Berdy argues that the Russian authorities’ alleged success in tackling the virus and the many conspiracy theories; from the virus being a hoax invented by the US to destroy China’s economy, it being made in a US laboratory and planted in China, Bill Gates having invented it so he could make money off the vaccine, or it’s just another version of SARS, which turned out to be less dangerous that everyone feared, lead to Russians openly flouting social distancing rules and other stringent lockdown measures instituted in Moscow, to curb the spread of the virus, beginning March 25. The March-30-lockdown in Moscow is likely to continue until at least the end of the month, with gloves and masks in public places having been made mandatory. According to The Moscow Times, a partial lifting of lockdown regulations is scheduled for June 1, when all non-food shops and some service sector businesses will be allowed to reopen.

Petty crimes and scams are on the rise as the unemployed run out of money and haphazard quarantine measures and little economic aid to those in need are exacerbating matters, according to Politico.

The government has resorted to mobile tracking apps and facial recognition tech to identify and bring to book, lockdown regulation violators, along with hefty fines to deter such behaviour.

The massive military processions planned for May 9 V-Day was scrapped as well as the constitutional referendum set for April 22, which would have allowed Putin to extend his rule to 2036. Berdy argues that Putin’s hands-off approach to the COVID-19 crisis may have cost him much political mileage, while Patrick Kennelly pointed out that his lack of presence during the single largest domestic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union will damage the legitimacy of his rule. (SP)

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