With the arrival of the data for April, however, the mystery seems to be clearing up.
Data released by the Moscow city government on Friday it shows that the total number of deaths recorded in the Russian capital in April exceeded the five-year average for the same period by more than 1,700. This total is much higher than the official Covid-19 death count of 642 – an indication of significant underreporting by the authorities.
A similar image has been observed in many other countries. In neighboring Belarus, for example – where authoritarian leader Aleksandr G. Lukashenko has rejected requests for blockades such as "frenzy and psychosis" – the reported death rate is around 10 per million. In Mexico, employees registered more than three times as many deaths in the capital as the government acknowledged.
"Mortality figures in Moscow appear to be well above the April average for the past decade," said Tatiana N. Mikhailova, senior researcher at the Moscow Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. "One thing is clear: the number of victims of Covid-19 is possibly almost three times greater than the official number," she said in an interview, adding that additional calculations need to be made to arrive at an accurate number.
The new figures contrast sharply with the line that was sold by the Kremlin.
Speaking to President Vladimir V. Putin at the end of April, Anna Popova, Russia's head of consumer rights and responsible for human well-being, boasted that the country's death rate was "among the lowest in the world". Russian state television channels tirelessly announce the country's effort to combat the virus as superior to Western countries.
On Monday, claiming success in delaying the spread of the coronavirus, despite the sharp rise in infections, Putin ordered the end of a national "period off" in effect since the end of March.
Putin, speaking on state television shortly after health officials reported the biggest increase in infections in a day, acknowledged that the pandemic had not yet been defeated, but said that it is now up to regional governors to decide whether to lift or strengthen restrictions on their cases. territories.
Although the official number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus in Russia was 1,124 for Moscow and 2,009 for the entire country as of Monday, arriving at a more accurate estimate will be highly complicated.
Thousands of people have left Moscow since the city government declared a blockade in March, an exodus that would reduce the number of deaths in the city. And many people could have died of other causes, at least 37 Moscow hospitals have been converted to treat only coronavirus patients.
Overall, about 70% of coronavirus-related deaths have not been reported in Moscow and about 80% in regions of the country, said Aleksei I. Raksha, an independent demographer in Moscow. He was one of the first to detect April data, buried on an obscure government statistics website, such as studying mortality rates in the Russian capital and regions of the country and comparing them to the official death toll.
The lower numbers, according to Raksha, can be attributed to the way causes of death are recorded in Russia.
"For most deaths, the recorded cause will be the disease of the organ that caused it directly," he said in an interview. "This is how the system has worked for a long time," he said, adding that he believes it is highly likely that authorities at some level are manipulating that system to achieve the desired result.
Speaking to Echo of Moscow radio last week, Georgi A. Frank, a medical examiner in Russia, acknowledged that health officials have a great deal of leeway to record the causes of death.
"In many cases, Covid-19 may not be the leading cause of death – sometimes it may just be a backdrop for the main disease" Mr. Frank said. "Of course, there can be some manipulation, but decent doctors never allow it."
Russia reported its first coronavirus death on March 19, when a 79-year-old woman died in Moscow. Soon after, the death was reclassified as a result of a blood clot and the case was removed from the official death toll in Covid-19.
More than 11,800 people died in Moscow in April this year, far more than in any other April since 1995, when Russia was involved in a post-Soviet economic crisis worse than the Great Depression. The figure was released by the Moscow government, which collects reports from the city's civil registry offices that record vital events such as births, marriages and deaths.
The death toll will be updated by the Russian Statistical Service by the end of this month, but it is unlikely to change much. On average, the Russian capital has about 10,000 deaths each April.
By far the busiest entry point in the country, Moscow was the first area in Russia to be hit by the coronavirus. Still, it lagged behind most other European capitals, registering only a few deaths before mid-April.
The Russian regions, in turn, lagged behind Moscow. As of Monday morning, Moscow accounted for 52% of all coronavirus cases in Russia, with more than 109,000 people infected.
An even clearer picture of the true number of coronavirus deaths is likely to be revealed in the May mortality data, when the virus began to dominate Russia in earnest, experts said. About 45 deaths and more than 5,000 new cases were reported daily in Moscow in the past week.