Russia expands stats on coronavirus-related deaths after criticism

On Friday, the Russian government presented more detailed mortality figures last month, including more coronavirus-related deaths, in an attempt to dispel the suspicions of some Russian and Western experts that the authorities were trying to reduce the number of victims by political reasons.

But officials have also defended the way they record deaths, which includes only people confirmed as dead by COVID-19, and not those who have succumbed to other causes – even if they also tested positive for the virus.

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Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said 1,675 people died from COVID-19 in April. Of that number, 1,136 deaths were caused directly by the confirmed COVID-19, while the remaining 539 had negative results, but probably died from the virus. In addition, according to her, 1,038 other people tested positive for the virus, but died of other causes.

If all three categories are counted as deaths by COVID-19, the total death toll in April would be 2,713, or almost 60% more than the number previously announced.

The country's current total is 4,374 deaths, about one percent of registered infections. These are deaths directly resulting from the virus, and some experts questioned the government's figures, pointing to a significant increase in April mortality in Moscow and St. Petersburg compared to the previous year. Moscow health officials also released broader coronavirus statistics on Thursday, which showed more deaths from those who tested positive, but died for other reasons.

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A protester protesting the blocking restrictions is being detained by police in Moscow on Friday. (Pavel Golovkin / Associated Press)

Even with these extra deaths, Russia's coronavirus mortality rate still appears markedly lower than in many European countries and the United States. Experts point to a combination of reasons, including the country's vastly sparsely populated territory, less frequent travel and less social mobility.

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Alexei Raksha, an independent demographer who analyzes government statistics, said that Russians have a much lower average life expectancy compared to people in the West, so the older generation in which the virus most affected Europe is simply not there . Russians also have a lower income and are not in the habit of socializing in public places – such as common work spaces in New York and restaurants.

Government defends approach

Russia has the third highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, with more than 387,000 cases, after the US and Brazil, and the remarkably low mortality rate has drawn suspicions that the authorities could have manipulated numbers to create a more positive picture for political purposes.

Russian authorities angrily denied and attributed the low number of deaths to comprehensive preventive measures, extensive testing and efficient hospital treatment.

Golikova defended the Russian approach to counting deaths from coronavirus, saying it is more accurate than in other countries and is based directly on the guidelines of the World Health Organization.

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A person reacts by passing portraits of St. Petersburg medical workers who died from COVID-19 at an unofficial memorial in front of the local health department on Wednesday. (Dmitri Lovetsky / Associated Press)

She emphasized that autopsies are performed for virtually everyone who died after positive tests for the virus or were suspected of having the infection, to determine the primary cause of death. In cases where COVID-19 is not considered to be the main cause, it is always mentioned as the underlying disease.

Golikova noted that the blockade across the country slowed down this work and, in some of the April cases, autopsies are still being carried out to determine the main cause of death with complete certainty.

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an end to the nationwide economic standstill, which was implemented in late March and encouraged regional governors to gradually tighten restrictions. He announced this week that a postponed Victory Day parade on Red Square, scheduled for May 9, to mark the 75th anniversary of Germany's surrender in World War II, will take place on June 24.

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