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.

You Won’t Rain on Our Parade

TV Rain general director Natalia Sindeeva, courtesy of her Facebook page. The slogan on her t-shirt – Ne dozhdyotes’ – means “fat chance,” “hold your breath,” that ain’t going to happen,” “in your dreams” – but here it’s also a play on the channel’s name in Russian, dozhd‘.

Natalia Sindeeva
Facebook
August 26, 2021

I have just gathered my thoughts and reflected on what has happened to us. I have written a letter to our viewers that I have also posted below.

[ _________ ]

I am Natasha Sindeeva, general director of TV Rain. And I’m not a foreign agent.

I am a patriot. I live in Russia, I love my country, I’m not going to leave and I’ve never had plans to leave.

Nor is Rain a foreign agent. Rain is almost 200 people who, just like me, love their country, cheer for it and want Russia to become better — more humane, safer, fairer, more honest, richer, freer. All we want is to be happy, live in peace and be proud of our country. And I’m sure the approximately 20 million people who watch and read us on different platforms every month want the same thing as we do.

A lot has happened to Rain over eleven years. We were disconnected from cable networks. Attempts were made to kill our business. We broadcast from an apartment, not knowing what would happen next. But we always continued to engage in honest journalism and tell the truth to our viewers. And we will continue to do it, even if someone doesn’t like it.

Of course, you can joke as much as you like about the status of foreign agent and call it a “seal of excellence.” But, in fact, all this is terrible. It is quite awful when the state divides people into “friends” and “strangers.”

A foreign agent, in fact, is a person or organization that acts in the interests of another country. We don’t have another country. We live, work and earn enough to keep our business going only in Russia. We act in the interests of our fellow Russian citizens who, according to the Constitution, have freedom of speech.

Here’s what I think is important.

The law on foreign agents is not only a dirty trick that stigmatizes dissidents and free people, and sicks our country’s citizens on each other, it is also a completely absurd law. Because any media outlet whatsoever can become a foreign agent today. For this to happen to you, you need to meet only two criteria: quoting other “foreign agents”, such as Meduza, Radio Liberty or Lev Ponomarev, and receiving money from abroad.

Even before the law on foreign agents was passed, like all media outlets we reported any foreign financing we received to Roskomnadzor [the Russian media regulator]. Today we went to the Roskomnadzor website to see who else besides us was in this report. And lo and behold! In addition to Rain, the report lists several dozen different media outlets, from knitting magazines to state-owned Russian companies such as RT, TASS and others.

Each of these media outlets, if it quotes a “foreign agent” at least once, can also be labeled a “foreign agent media outlet.” Think about it. And moreover, they do quote “foreign agents,” but they have not been labeled “foreign agents” themselves.

Is this stupid? Of course it’s stupid. Does it surprise me that Rain was labeled a foreign agent? No, it doesn’t surprise me. But it does not cow me either.

TV Rain subscribers now see the following obligatory warning message when they turn on the channel’s livestream: “This message (content) was created and (or) distributed by a foreign mass media outlet functioning as a foreign agent and (or) a Russian legal entity functioning as a foreign agent.”

We will defend the interests of Rain and other media outlets labeled foreign agents, and the interests of Russians. We will defend the right of our viewers to get information about what is really happening around them.

In an ideal world, I would dream of operating without ads that distract from our main content, without any funding other than the money paid by our subscribers.

Someday, I hope, that perfect time will come. But we are alive today, and we don’t live in an ideal world. In the current circumstances, the departure of any advertiser will be painful for us.

It is very expensive to make programs and run a TV channel . We have no curators, we have no state support, we aren’t owned by oligarchs or anyone else. We are a Russian independent media outlet, which the state once again wants to destroy simply because we are independent.

And we are also honest. First of all, to our viewers. We have never made compromises, even when physically threatened. We have never censored our work, either due to external pressure or out of our own fears. And we aren’t ashamed to look ourselves and you in the eye.

Thank you for your support and your faith in us. We will do everything in our power.

Rain is not a foreign agent, Rain is an agent of Russian citizens.

Rain is love!

Translated by the Russian Reader. If you speak Russian and have a PayPal account you can subscribe to TV Rain and/or make a donation to them. For more information and reflection on the Putin regime’s war on the country’s independent media and “foreign agents,” see “The Kremlin Is Coming for Media One By One — and Society Is Helpless to Stop It” (Moscow Times), and “Who Might Russia Declare A ‘Foreign Agent’ Journalist? Pretty Much Anyone, Really” (RFE/RL).

All in a Day’s Work

TV Rain has made the following list of people and places in Moscow raided and searched today (January 27, 2020) by the Putinist security forces. Thanks to Darya Apahonchich for the heads-up. \\ TRR

We made a list of all police searches today. As of now, we know that the security services have raided the following:

    • Navalny’s apartment in the Maryino district of Moscow
    • An apartment rented by Navalny near the Avtozavodskaya subway station
    • The Navalny LIVE studio
    • The Anti-Corruption Foundation’s offices
    • Lyubov Sobol’s apartment
    • Moscow Navalny HQ coordinator Oleg Stepanov
    • The apartment of Navalny’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh, who has been transported home from a special detention center for the search
    • The apartment of Anti-Corruption Foundation employee Georgy Alburov, who has also been transported home from a special detention center for the search
    • The apartment of Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina
    • The apartment of municipal district councilor Lusya Stein
    • The apartment of Anastasia Vasilyeva, head of the Alliance of Doctors: she has been detained and taken there for the search
    • The apartment of Nikolai Kasyan, aide to municipal district councilor Yulia Galyamina
    • The apartment of Yegor Yefremov, a member of the Libertarian Party of Russia (LPR) and Civil Society
    • The apartment of the mother of Sergei Smirnov, editor-in-chief of Mediazona

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Rain Came Down

 

 

TV Rain, April 8, 2020. “Three years after the first terrorist attack in the Petersburg subway, the court sent eleven people to prison—an entire terrorist network. We studied the evidence, talked to witnesses in Russia and Kyrgyzstan, and realized that there are too many secrets and questions left in the case. We assembled our own jury to decide whether the case should be reopened.”

People Freaked Out in a Good Way
Ilya Ershov spoke with TV Rain reporter Yevgenia Zobnina about her documentary film on the strange investigation of the April 3, 2017, terrorist attack in the Petersburg subway.
Open Space

Why did you decide to tackle this topic?

I was working as a correspondent for TV Rain in Petersburg and spent the whole day [of April 3, 2017] outside the Tekhnologicheskii Institut subway station. The most amazing thing was what happened afterward. The entire city raised money [for the victims and their families], government-organized rallies were held, and then somehow everyone abruptly forgot about it . Then there were fragmentary reports that the culprits had been caught. Next there was the trial. On the first day, reporters came running to film and photograph those eleven [defendants]. That was it. And then there was the verdict. There has been a good trend in journalism, on YouTube, of returning to the sore spots in our history. It seemed to me that this story should also be told.

Were there things you found out when shooting the film that didn’t end up in the film?

There was this thing with one of the relatives of the Azimov brothers, who had been corresponding on WhatsApp with unknown numbers. The investigation used some of them as evidence of [the brothers’] connection with terrorists. One of the relatives said, This is my number, I exist, I live in Ukraine, I am not a terrorist. If Ukraine had not gone into quarantine, we could have found more witnesses there.

How many people refused to talk to you?

It was a big problem for the relatives of the defendants to give their relatives’ contacts, because everyone is scared. None of the relatives turned us down. They were happy that someone was interested in their lives. They say that if their relatives were terrorists, the local security service would not have left them alone. But they came once, took their information, and never showed up again.

zobninaYevgenia Zobnina. Photo courtesy of her Facebook page

How openly were Kyrgyzstan’s human rights defenders ready to communicate with you? Were they and the relatives [of the defendants] under pressure from the local security services?

It was a great surprise for me to talk with Sardorbek, a lawyer at the [Kyrgyz] human rights organization Justice. He says that they know how to assert their rights. In Kyrgyzstan, there are laws that enable one to defend one’s rights. When they found out about the disappearance of their relatives, the Azimov family practically lived in the offices of the human rights defenders for several days, and no one came and tried to take them away. But we did not find any attempts by [the governments of] Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to stand up for their citizens.

Have the Russian authorities reacted to the film?

We made official inquiries even as we were making the film, but we didn’t get any answers. This film was made for society, not for the state.

What kind of reactions have their been to the film in general?

People have freaked out in a good way. Their reaction has been, “Wow, why is it like that in our country?”

You staged a jury trial in the film? Are such trials the future?

There should be jury trials at some stage. But there will never be a jury trial in this case. [On the day the verdict in the real trial was announced] Putin came to Petersburg: how could those people have not been convicted? In the film, the jury was there to keep us from turning into accusers of the FSB. We thought it vital to turn this into a conversation about what was wrong with the case. Jury trials are demonstrative. Every detail of a case is examined carefully, because both sides understand that they are facing people who do not understand anything about it. The verdict depends on how you explain the evidence. When we begin to explain what happened in the investigation of the terrorist attack, everything immediately becomes clear.

Thanks to Ilya Ershov for the heads-up and for permission to translate and publish this interview here. Translated by the Russian Reader. Please read my previous posts on the terrorist attack, the case against its alleged financiers and planners, its roots in the Islamophobia that has infected Russia under Putin, and the shocking absence of local and international solidarity with the eleven people convicted and sentenced to long prison terms in the case:

 

Smile! You’re on Hidden Camera

sure we can

Center “E” Surveilled Belgorod Family or Nine Months via Camera Hidden in Flat
OVD Info
August 24, 2018

In Belgorod, officers of the Center for Extremism Prevention (aka Center “E”) watched a married couple for nine months using a camera hidden in their flat, reports TV Rain, citing defense attorney Anton Omelchenko.

The couple was suspected of involvement with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A court gave Center “E” permission to use the camera for three months on three occasions.

“Law enforcement agencies put hidden cameras in homes to record people playing. Criminal charges were filed as a result. One of the cases in Belgorod simply slayed me: a married coupled in a one-room flat who were under surveillance for nine months round the clock. Everything was really noted in the case files. The couple would watch TV and say something negative about the regime, and the field officers would immediately write down, ‘Criticized regime.’ There was a complete transcript of the entire surveillance. I also found this shocking,” Omelchenko told the TV channel.

Since their case has not yet been heard in court, Omelchenko did not name the couple who were under surveillance. It is known they have left Russia.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

Deputy Communications Minister Volin: There Is No Alternative

volinAlexei Volin. Photo courtesy of Parlamentskaya gazeta

From an interview with Russian federal deputy communications minister Alexei Volin, broadcast on the TV Rain program “Hard Day’s Night” yesterday:

TV Rain: Among [Russian] TV channels who provides an alternative viewpoint in your opinion?

Volin: Among the general access channels, probably no one provides a strongly alternative viewpoint due to the fact that they think about their ratings. A TV channel or mass media outlet that today adopts a unpatriotic viewpoint will simply be economically unsuccessful because the audience will turn away from it.

TV Rain: Excuse me, I seem to be a little confused about terms. We asked you about alternatives, but you talked about being unpatriotic. You mean that an alternative viewpoint is a priori unpatriotic?

Volin: I don’t have the slightest doubt about this.

(A transcript of the interview can be read, in Russian, on journalist Andrei Amalgin’s blog.)

__________

Deputy minister Volin is no stranger to brutal authoritarian “honesty.” This is what he said in his keynote address at a conference held at Moscow State University’s journalism department in February 2013:

A journalist is tasked with making money for those who hired him. And you can only do that by making your resource interesting for your readers, viewers or listeners. The question, then, is, Do mass media serve a propaganda function? Of course they do, to the extent their owners believe appropriate. […] Propaganda should not be obvious; propaganda should be hidden — then and only then can it be effective. We need to make it clear to students that when they leave this building, they are going to go work for The Man. And The Man is going to tell them what to write and what not to write, and how to write about this or that. And The Man has a right to do this because he is paying them. […] You may like what I have told you or not, but it’s objective reality. It’s life. And it’s not like you are ever going to see a different life.