Flattening the Curve: Why Official Russian Covid Stats Can’t Be Trusted

Covid isn’t scary anymore: how the authorities stopped reckoning with the coronavirus when it suited them
Tatiana Torocheshnikova
TV Rain
October 15, 2021

The Russian authorities are often criticized for ignoring the pandemic to the good of the political conjuncture. It was with an eye to politics, and not to the numbers for illnesses and deaths caused by covid-19, according to critics, that decisions were made to hold a referendum on amending the Constitution and lift covid restrictions in the run-up to the referendum last year. The same criticism was leveled against the Crimea annexation anniversary concert in March of this year at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, and the Euro 2020 matches and the Crimson Sails event held in Petersburg. How justified is this criticism? To answer this question, TV Rain studied the covid-19 task force’s official data on coronavirus infections and deaths, as well as Rosstat’s data on mortality from the spring of 2020 to the autumn of this year.

“A number of large shopping centers have already received a warning this week. And work on monitoring compliance with the mask mandate will be intensified and implemented even more vigorously,” Alexei Nemeryuk, head of the Moscow department of trade and services, said on Monday, September 27, a week after the elections to the State Duma. A week later, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin noted that the spread of the coronavirus caused “serious concern,” while the head of the consumer and public health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor said that the situation was “extremely tense.”

By this time, the decline in the number of new covid-19 cases, which had continued since late July, had stopped and an uptickd had begun. A similar surge in morbidity was observed in mid-June, when the more contagious delta variant began to sweep Russia. The two other waves of covid-19 epidemic occurred in the spring and autumn/winter of 2020.

How the authorities first reckoned with covid waves, then stopped
If we superimpose the most important events for the authorities in 2020 — the 75th Victory Day Parade and the vote on the Constitution — on the curve tracking incidence of the coronavirus, we can see that both events were held after the first wave of covid-19 had subsided. As this graph bears out, there was no increase in infections after these events either.

The situation was different this year. Only some of the Kremlin’s high-profile events took place in favorable epidemiological circumstances. The concert in Luzhniki, attended by Vladimir Putin, was held at a time when the increase in new cases of covid-19 was at the lowest level for this year. The same can be said about the 2021 Victory Day parade.

A new coronavirus wave kicked off in mid-June, but this did not prevent the authorities from holding UEFA Euro 2020 group stage matches, which ended on the crest of the wave of infections, in Petersburg. It would be difficult to call favorable the numbers of new infections during Petersburg’s Crimson Sails celebration for school-leavers. The cancellation of QR codes in Moscow in late July is also difficult to explain in terms of positive morbidity figures.

Coronavirus infections in Russia between March 2020 and September 2021. Key public events (and cancelled events) during this period are identified and marked in red, including the 2020 Victory Day parade in Moscow, the constitutional referendum in July 2020, the Crimson Sails celebration in Petersburg in June 2021, and parliamentary elections in September 2021. Courtesy of TV Rain

Can we trust official data on numbers of infections?
During the pandemic, demographers and epidemiologists have repeatedly drawn attention to the peculiar numbers issued by the covid-19 task force. “I always start the conversation like this: forget that there is a task force. It is pointless to discuss that today, for some reason, there were exactly one thousand fewer or more cases recorded than yesterday. Why? Because. Because the gladiolus. Because that’s the figure they thought up yesterday,” says independent demographer Alexei Raksha, one of the principal critics of the official figures. Back in July 2020, after the vote on amending the Constitution, he noted an unusual drop in the number of infections. “In late June [2020], we were told that there had been a certain decline in even symptomatic cases, and then the numbers went up again after July 1,” Raksha said.

The 2003 KVN skit by the Ural Dumplings that gave birth to the “Because the gladiolus” meme.

In his opinion, internet searches are the most accurate indicator of covid-19’s spread. “The incidence curve lags way behind. I use only Yandex searches — for example, searches for ‘sense of smell’ reflect the trends better than others,” he explains.

Trends for coronavirus-related searches on Yandex between March 2020 and September 2021. The searches tracked during this period included the following terms: “antibodies,” “second wave,” “call an ambulance,” “home food delivery,” “how to avoid infection,” “buy antiseptic,” “buy mask and respirator,” “coronavirus treatment,” “loss of smell,” “oxygen saturation monitor,” “get tested,”  “coronavirus symptoms,” “what to do at home,” and “what to do if ambulance doesn’t come.” Source: Yandex/TV Rain

Experts have named several possible factors for distortions in the official statistics. “First, the counting is done differently in different regions, and the epidemic moves across the country from month to month. And second, even within a particular region, the local covid-19 task force sometimes starts to do a better job of counting over time — maybe they import more tests, or they start cheating less,” says Dmitry Kobak, a data researcher from the University of Tübingen in Germany. According to him, it is also possible that the covid-19 task forces in some regions report “retroactively” — that is, for example, they issue the stats for July deaths in August.

“No one knows what deaths, exactly, are reported by the task force,” adds Sergey Timonin, a researcher at the International Laboratory for Population and Health at the Higher School of Economics. “I am not aware of regulatory documents that would explain this.”

Kobak draws attention to the fact that since the regions have started publishing statistics, so-called plateaus have regularly appeared in the data, that is, when the number of deaths has remained the same for several days, or even weeks. In September, similar “plateaus” — with the daily number of deaths hovering around 800 — appeared in the overall statistics for the country. “Previously, they showed up only within individual regions. This is interesting: it means that if the stats used to be fudged at the regional level and were added up afterwards, now, apparently, someone has been adjusting the figures after or while summing them up [for the whole country],” explains Kobak.

Verifying official mortality statistics
To get an objective picture of the coronavirus pandemic, experts use the excess mortality rate, which is the difference between real deaths and Rosstat’s forecast (that is, the number of deaths that we would expect if there were no pandemic), which, in turn, is calculated based on mortality data from previous years.

Calculations made by Alexei Raksha specially for TV Rain show that, by the end of 2020, there had been nearly 360 thousand excess deaths in Russia. At this time, the covid-19 task force’s death toll was about six times less — around 57 thousand deaths. By September 2021, excess mortality figures exceeded 675 thousand, but the covid-19 task force reported 180 thousand deaths for this same period. Since there have been no other major factors that could have had a strong impact on the life expectancy of Russians in the last two years, experts concede that it was the coronavirus that caused the serious increase in mortality in the country.

If the excess deaths graph is superimposed on the infections graph, as based on the task force’s data, we can see that they are roughly comparable. Raksha confirms this: the morbidity statistics for Russia as a whole “to some extent reflect reality when squinted at from three meters.” However, Raksha draws attention to the fact that excess mortality has been running chronologically ahead of the task force’s morbidity statistics. This may indicate that the latter are being heavily fudged, the demographer argues.

The trends for excess mortality (in dark blue, as reported by Rosstat), deaths caused by covid-19 (light blue) and covid-19 infections (pink), as reported by the Russian covid task force, between May 2020 and August 2021

The situation is different with the official data on mortality due to covid-19. When the covid-19 task force’s date is combined with Rosstat’s figures, the two curves radically diverge.

At the same time, the “hump” on the excess mortality graph in July 2020 stands out amid falling numbers of infections. Raksha believes that part of the increase in excess mortality that month was caused by the heatwave in the Urals. In his opinion, however, this factor could have added no more than five thousand deaths across the country. The rest of the difference, according to Raksha, is explained by the deliberate “flattening” of the task force’s official data.

Nevertheless, the covid-19 task force’s figures remain the only official data source available to Russians on a daily basis. And as follows from the graphs, above, this year the Russian authorities finally stopped using even these numbers as a guide when making decisions on holding large-scale events.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Just as I was finishing this post, Mark Teeter brought to my attention this article on the same subject (also featuring Alexei Raksha) in today’s edition of the Washington Post.

The Grass Is Always Greener on Our Side of the Fence

“What do we need Europe for? We have Petersburg. And it’s a lot better.” Source: St. Petersburg Photo Diary (public Facebook page)

Russia records highest covid-19 mortality rate for third day in a row
Radio Svoboda
August 14, 2021

For the third day in a row, Russia has recorded the highest number of deaths from the novel coronavirus infection since the beginning of the pandemic. On Saturday, August 14, the authorities reported 819 deaths, according to the federal crisis management center.

A year ago, the Russian authorities declared victory over the pandemic, but due to the low level of vaccination and the spread of new strains, the number of reported infections has increased four times, and the death toll has increased six times compared to the previous summer.

On August 14, 22,144 new cases of infection by the novel coronavirus were recorded in Russia. 19,550 people recovered. The official death toll for the entire pandemic has reached almost 170,000.

Using data from Rosstat, the Russian federal statistics agency, independent demographers and statistical researchers have estimated that the real number of deaths from the pandemic is three and a half times higher,  in excess of 600,000.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Jenya Kulakova: In Orenburg

The Sokol (“Falcon”) Widescreen Movie Theater in Orenburg, as photographed by Jenya Kulakova on August 13, 2021. She reports that the American animated feature “The Boss Baby: Family Business” was playing there today.

Jenya Kulakova
Facebook
August 13, 2021

Today I did manage to meet with Vitya [Viktor Filinkov] at Penal Colony No. 1 in Orenburg. I didn’t recognize him at first when they brought him out. He was wearing a baggy uniform that was too big, a small cap that didn’t fit on his head and, as he showed me later, huge size 45 shoes. (There all the new arrivals were given size 45 shoes. Another inmate commented on this fact as follows: “I’m trying to laugh hard about it so as not to be sad.”) My only glimpses of the usual Vitya were face (in a mask) and hands (in gloves).

He is in quarantine, where the conditions are indistinguishable from solitary confinement. All his things have been taken to the warehouse, and he has nothing to write on and nothing to read. The mattress is taken away during the day, but he can only sit on the bench when eating. They hadn’t yet taken him out for a walk during his first day there.

Upon his arrival at the penal colony, blood and urine tests were done, and an EKG was performed. Vitya is still ill, so they began giving him cough pills and antibiotics.

He is alone in the cell. He experienced no violence or threats during his first day in the penal colony.

He will be in quarantine for 14 days.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Here is a complete list of all the articles that I have published about Viktor Filinkov and the other defendants in the Network Case. Visit Rupression.com to find out how you can show your solidarity with them.

#NetworkCase #ДелоСети

 

Compulsory Psychiatric Treatment for Yakut Shaman Alexander Gabyshev

 

Alexander Gabyshev. Archive photo courtesy of Deutsche Welle

Yakutsk Court Orders Compulsory Medical Treatment for Shaman Gabyshev
Deutsche Welle
July 26, 2021

Alexander Gabyshev has been sent to a specialized medical facility as part of the case against him following accusations of violence against a Russian National Guard officer. The court issued an obiter dictum against Gabyshev’s lawyer, Olga Timofeyeva.

The court in Yakutsk ordered Gabyshev, known as the “Yakut shaman,” to undergo compulsory medical treatment “at a specialized medical facility with intensive care.” Alexei Pryanishnikov, coordinator of Open Russia Human Rights and a defense attorney for Gabyshev, informed MBKh Media of this on Monday, July 26.

According to Pryanishnikov, his defendant will remain in custody until the court order takes effect. Furthermore, the court issued an obiter dictum against Gabyshev’s lawyer Olga Timofeyeva, who stated that she “was ashamed to be taking part in this trial.”

The Gabyshev Case
It was reported in June that Gabyshev—held at the time in the Yakutsk Psycho-Neurological Treatment Clinic—had taken a turn for the worse: he reported feeling weak, dizzy and drowsy.

The shaman’s trial began on April 30. Gabyshev stood accused of using force against a Russian National Guardsman. Gabyshev had been sentenced to six months in the psychiatric clinic, a term that expired on July 27. This is precisely why the Yakutsk court was in such a hurry to review his case, according to Pryanishnikov.

Marching to Moscow
In March 2019, Gabyshev, a resident of Yakutsk, announced that he was walking to the Kremlin to “drive out Putin.” He was detained in September following six months and 3,000 kilometers of travel. The FSB opened a case into publicly calling for extremism, but did not officially accuse the shaman of anything. He was placed in the psycho-neurological clinic and declared mentally incompetent on October 3, but was later released.

In December 2019, Gabyshev again set out for Moscow, but he was detained again, and this time accused of failure to obey the police. In 2020, he underwent compulsory medical treatment in the Yakutsk Republic Psychiatric Clinic, at which point Memorial recognized Gabyshev as a political prisoner.

In January 2021 Gabyshev announced that he was preparing for a new march to Moscow, after which he was again detained and subsequently transferred to the psychiatric clinic.

Translated by the Fabulous AM

Back in the USSR: “Sluggish Schizophrenia”

Back in the USSR: Sluggish Schizophrenia
LiveJournal (Alexei Nasedkin)
July 26, 2021

The man in the photo is Dmitry Nadein, a grassroots political activist from Irkutsk. He’s not just an activist, but was once a volunteer at Alexei Navalny’s local headquarters. Russian law enforcement agencies could not overlook such a dangerous criminal, of course, and, putting aside all their other business, they rushed into battle with him.

Nadein was arrested on February 4 on charges of “condoning terrorism,” in a case launched by FSB investigators. Taiga.Info reported that, on November 21 of last year, Nadein published on his Vkontakte page the news that a military court had sentenced Lyudmila Stech, a Kaliningrad resident, to pay a large fine for “condoning” the “Arkhangelsk terrorist.”

In early April, Nadein was forced to undergo a forensic psychiatric examination: he was diagnosed with “sluggish schizophrenia” and labeled “especially dangerous to society.” And today, thanks to OVD Info, it transpired that [on July 19] the First Eastern District Military Court had ordered Dmitry to undergo compulsory psychiatric treatment.

I’ll take this opportunity to note that there is no such thing as “sluggish schizophrenia” at all. It is a typical Soviet diagnosis, dreamed up by Andrei Snezhnevsky back in 1969 by analogy with Eugen Bleuler’s “latent schizophrenia,” which today is listed as one variety of “schizotypal disorder” (coded as F21 in the ICD-10). Beginning in the 1960s, many ideological opponents of the Soviet Communist Party found themselves under this psychiatric stigma. About a third of all political prisoners were forcibly “treated,” crippling their lives. By the way, this treatment was applied not only to political dissidents per se, but also to “deviants” more generally, as well as to many homeless people and those who avoided military service. Need I mention how many of their civil liberties were violated and how their health was ruined?

Today, step by step, the Soviet model of punitive psychiatry is being restored and modified to new realities. After all, no holds are barred when it comes to “mopping up” the political landscape.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Fallout

TASS reports:

The fallout from the news that Russian tourists in Cuba have been quarantined due to suspected coronavirus infections does not facilitate promoting tourist trips to this country on the Russian market. The [Russian] diplomatic mission is working with the Cuban side to resolve the problem as soon as possible, Russian Ambassador to Havana Andrei Guskov said.

Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba. Photo: ITAR-TASS/Andrei Babushkin

Bumaga reports:

From January to April 2021, 30% more people died in St. Petersburg than during the same period in 2020, according to figures published by Petrostat on July 5.

In total, 27,027 people died in the first four months of 2021, compared to 20,752 people a year ago. In April, 5,897 people were confirmed dead — this was 11.5% more than in April 2020.

In 2021, community-acquired pneumonia also began to be detected more often in St. Petersburg. From January to April, 22,945 cases of pneumonia were recorded. This was twice as many as in the first four months of 2020.

No Country for Old Men

Young people celebrating on Palace Square in Petersburg. Photo: Alexander Galperin/RIA Novosti. Courtesy of Open Media

The authorities spend 35 million rubles on offline celebration of Youth Day in Russia amidst pandemic’s third wave
Dmitry Nikitin
Open Media
June 27, 2021

The Russian authorities have spent almost 35 million rubles [approx. 406,000 euros] on celebrating Youth Day (June 27), Open Media has calculated on the basis of public procurement records. Events are being held offline in twenty-three regions; no tenders were announced in the other regions of the Russian Federation. The money has been used to organize concerts, master classes, picnics and lectures, which have not been canceled amidst the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Over the past day, according to the federal pandemic crisis center, 20,538 new cases of infection were reported, and 599 people died. In many regions, restrictions have been introduced and mandatory vaccination has been announced for certain segments of the populace.

The most funds have been allocated for Youth Day celebrations in Tatarstan: the celebration in its capital city of Kazan has cost 10 million rubles. Six venues have been organized around the city for events including a music festival, dance competitions and master classes on promoting TikTok content. Family picnics featuring children’s activity zones, photo shoots, DJ performances and lectures have been scheduled for parents and children at the city’s Gorky Park. The tender documents do not specify whether the number of attendees at the events will be restricted.

In St. Petersburg, a concert costing 1.1 million rubles has been commissioned by city hall’s Committee on Youth Policy and Cooperation with Public Organizations. The celebrations in Tula have cost 1.5 million rubles. The authorities there have scheduled a master class in archery, a football tournament and a city tour.

In some regions, planned events have been canceled due to the epidemiological situation, for example, in Vladivostok, Dagestan and the Perm Region.

Youth Day has been celebrated annually on June 27 since 1993, when it was established by a decree of President Boris Yeltsin. Last year, due to the pandemic, the offline celebration was canceled.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Crimson Sails

vera.afanasyeva
“A man depicting Alexander Nevsky, on a ship that [was built] 500 years after Nevsky, sings the Soviet song ‘It’s Fun to Walk Together’ at a Putinist festival in St. Petersburg at the height of the epidemic.

Russia: Chronicles of Mass Madness”

And also people in elven armor, people in 18th and 19th century European dress, one dude in a hockey uniform. Peter the Great and someone who looks like Lomonosov.

Only Lenin and Stalin are missing from this picture.

Poor, poor [Alexander] Green . . .

See Alexander Petrosyan’s photos of last night’s Crimson Sails festivities here. Translated by the Russian Reader

__________________

Saint Petersburg Posts Record Covid Toll Following Euro 2020
AFP (Moscow Times)
June 26, 2021

Sweden supporters cheer during the UEFA EURO 2020 Group E football match between Sweden and Poland at Saint Petersburg Stadium in Saint Petersburg on June 23, 2021. Maxim Shmetov/AFP

Russia’s Euro 2020 host Saint Petersburg on Saturday reported the country’s highest daily Covid-19 toll for a city since the start of the pandemic, data showed.

Official figures said the city, which has already hosted six Euro 2020 matches and is due to host a quarter-final on Friday, recorded 107 virus deaths over the last 24 hours.

Russian news agencies said this was the highest toll of any Russian city since the start of the pandemic.

Saint Petersburg was where dozens of Finland supporters caught coronavirus after they traveled to the city for their team’s defeat against Belgium.

Russia has seen an explosion of new coronavirus cases since mid-June driven by the highly infectious Delta variant first identified in India.

The nation as a whole reported 21,665 new infections on Saturday, the highest daily figure since January.

The dramatic rise in infections come as officials in Moscow are pushing vaccine-skeptical Russians to get inoculated, after lifting most anti-virus restrictions late last year.

“To stop the pandemic, one thing is needed: rapid, large-scale vaccinations. Nobody has invented any other solution,” Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin told state-run television on Saturday.

“To fundamentally solve this problem, you need to be vaccinated or go to a lockdown,” he was cited as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.

Russia also reported 619 new coronavirus deaths on Saturday—the highest daily toll since December—bringing the total to 132,683 fatalities since the pandemic began.

But officials in the sixth-worst hit country the world—and the hardest in Europe—have been accused of downplaying the severity of the outbreak in the country.

Under a broader definition for deaths linked to coronavirus, statistics agency Rosstat at the end of April said that Russia has seen at least 270,000 fatalities since the pandemic began.

Just 21.2 million out of a population of about 146 million had received at least one dose of a vaccine as of Friday, according to the Gogov website, which tallies Covid figures from the regions and the media.