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.

I’ll Let the Robots at Yandex Get This One

TASS ✔
Sergei Lavrov said that on the eve of the parliamentary elections in the Russian Federation, new attempts by Western countries to “shake up the situation” and “provoke protest demonstrations” are possible.

“It can be assumed that on the eve of the elections to the State Duma there will be new attempts to undermine, destabilize the situation, provoke protest demonstrations, preferably violent, as the West likes to do. Probably, then a campaign will be launched to not recognize our elections — there are such plans, we are aware of them, but we will focus primarily on the position and opinion of our people, who themselves are able to assess the actions of the authorities and speak out about how they want to further develop their country,” he said.

Translated by Yandex Translate. Source: Telegram

Yandex.Rover, a driverless robot for delivering hot restaurant meals, is seen in a business district in Moscow, Russia, December 10, 2020. Photo: Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

Russia’s Yandex driverless robots to deliver food at U.S. colleges with GrubHub
Reuters
July 6, 2021

Driverless robots will soon deliver food to students on college campuses in the United States after Russian tech giant Yandex (YNDX.O) and online food-ordering company GrubHub (GRUB.VI) agreed a multi-year partnership, Yandex said on Tuesday.

Sometimes described as Russia’s Google, Yandex offers a raft of services, from advertising and search to ride-hailing and food delivery. It began testing autonomous delivery robots in 2019 and already operates at some locations in central Moscow and in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Yandex did not disclose the financial terms of the partnership.

“We are delighted to deploy dozens of our rovers, taking the next step in actively commercializing our self-driving technology in different markets across the globe,” said Dmitry Polishchuk, CEO of Yandex Self-Driving Group.

Yandex’s delivery robots will join GrubHub’s platform, with the service to be made available at select college campuses this autumn. GrubHub partners with more than 250 college campuses across the United States.

“While college campuses are notoriously difficult for cars to navigate, specifically as it relates to food delivery, Yandex robots easily access parts of campuses that vehicles cannot — effectively removing a major hurdle universities face when implementing new technology,” said Brian Madigan, vice president of corporate and campus partners at GrubHub.

The technology behind Yandex’s delivery robots is the same that powers its self-driving cars.

Welcome to Moscow!

chinamenThe photo accompanying the article translated below would leave no doubt in readers’ minds that it was people from China who would be targeted by the new surveillance measures. Photo by Gleb Shchelkunov. Courtesy of Kommersant

Big Tour Is Watching You
System for Monitoring Flows of Foreigners to Be Readied for When Borders Open
Yulia Tishina
Kommersant
April 9, 2020

It is not only the city’s residents that the Moscow mayor’s office wants to track: it is also interested in designing a system, based on data from telecom operators, for tracking the movements of tourists in the capital. The system should help monitor the incidence of coronavirus and localize breakouts after the borders have beern reopened. According to our sources, Yandex, which already supplies the authorities with data on transport flows and monitors the level of self-isolation in Moscow, could be eligible for the contract.

Moscow authorities could create a system for monitoring places where foreign tourists gather, a source in the mayor’s office has told our newspaper. It would track foreigners who came to Moscow and determine the areas where they spent the most time, using data from telecom providers based on roaming or local SIM cards.

According to the source, the Moscow Department of Information Technology (DIT) plans to sign a contract for providing such data with a sole provider. This information was confirmed by another source familiar with the authorities’ plans. According to the source, monitoring of tourists in Moscow would be required to control the incidence of infection after restrictions on movement between countries had been lifted: “The system should help track residents who have potentially come into contact with foreigners and localize outbreak areas.”

DIT’s press service said there were currently no plans to create such a system, but confirmed it was doing a “cost assessment of services for the provision of on-demand geo-analytical reports.”

City authorities have already been purchasing data from operators on the movement of individuals, based on the geolocation of SIM cards. Since 2015, DIT has spent 516 million rubles [approx. 6.3 million euros] on purchasing such data, Vedomosti reported in March 2019. The city administration’s analytical center acts as an intermediary between DIT and operators, and the data is anonymized.

Yandex could submit a bid design the tourist tracking system, said one of our sources. “The company already transmits its data to the authorities in various categories, including traffic flows,” he said. Yandex has also launched a system for monitoring the level of self-isolation in Moscow and other cities. Yandex declined to comment on city hall’s project. MTS, MegaFon, and VimpelCom also declined to comment.

A spokesperson at Tele2 said it is impossible to identify individual subscribers in projects using depersonalized data.

A system for monitoring coronavirus patients based on geolocation data from telecom operators was launched in Moscow on March 3.

To do this, the patient has to download a special app or get a device loaded with it from the authorities. The best option may be to implement monitoring of tourist traffic on the basis of the existing system, according to Dmitry Karosanidze, head of the network solutions sales support group at Jet Infosystems. “You would also have to work out how to rapidly upload data on newly arrived tourists from the databases of telecom operators, as well as the databases of the Tourism Ministry and the Border Guards,” he added.

Many companies in the retail and banking segment have been purchasing aggregated geolocation data for a long time from telecom operators to determine the best locations for stores and branches, said Kirill Morozov, head of the telecoms and IT division at PwC. “If data were collected and transmitted anonymously, it would not violate users’ rights,” he noted.

Such technologies already enable state agencies to analyze the flow of people in the city in order to make decisions about infrastructure development, said Anna Nikitova, an adviser at Yakovlev & Partners Law Group. “But selective tracking of individuals excludes depersonalizing information. And providing third parties with information about subscribers can only be done with their consent,” she noted. Therefore, bringing the system online would likely involve the authorities enacting new directives, the expert argued, while it would be important to ensure their compliance with European data protection regulation (GDPR).

Thanks to Anatrrra for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Taxi

Elena Rykovtseva
Facebook
March 19, 2018

I was riding tonight in a taxi driven by someone with a surprising name: Nasimjon. I was watching Solovyov’s show on my telephone. His guests were voicing the warmest feelings of devotion to the winner of the race.
“He got so many votes not because he had the administrative resource behind him, but because people love and respect him,” said Andrei Maximov, presenter of the program Duty Officer for the Country.
My [sic] Nasimjon was silently listening to this splendor with me. At some point, moved by the emotions of the people speaking, he voiced his own.
“I was so scared today.”
“What was wrong?”
“I typed the question, ‘How much did Putin get in Moscow?’ into Yandex. The answer I got was eleven percent for him, and seventy-three percent for Grudinin. I was frightened.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Because the situation in the world is such that where would be without Putin? Look what’s going on around us: England and America again. Who else can deal with them?”
“Why do we need to deal with America?”
“They dream of ripping us to shreds. They kill everybody. They occupy everybody and kill them.”
“Who have they killed?”
“Iraq, Afghanistan. They organized the coup in Ukraine.”
“Did you hear that on TV?”
“No, my passengers told me. Plus, the Americans think everyone else is stupid.”
“Who told you that?”
“My Armenian friend. He’s lived in America for twenty years. He says that in the textbooks over there it’s written that Americans are smart, and everyone else is stupid. But Putin has made everyone fear us.”
“That’s a good thing?”
“It is.”
“Maybe it would be better if we were respected and liked?”
“It doesn’t work that way with the Americans. We have to make them fear us.”
“So, how did this thing with Putin end? You believed the figures were real?”
“Yes, I did, and that’s why I got scared. But then I turned on Business FM Radio, and it turned out it was the other way around, that Putin had seventy-three percent, and Grudinin, eleven percent. So now everything here is going to be fine.”
“What’s going to be fine?”
“Putin’s friends have already had their fill of stealing. If new guys had come to power, it would have started all over again.”
Ugh.

The author is a presenter on Radio Svoboda, the Russian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo of the cast of Taxi courtesy of Asian Image

P.S. “What the taxi driver told me” has long been a common genre in Russian social media, especially the Russophone segment of Facebook. In most such stories, whether true or fabricated, the taxi driver is a stand-in for (debased) popular wisdom, for the Russian folk (russkii narod), meaning “ordinary,” “rank-and-file” Russians, whom the Russian liberal intelligentsia have historically imagined as a benighted, homogeneous mass.

The twist in this particular variation on the yarn is that the taxi driver’s name, Nasimjon, indicates he is clearly not ethnically Russian, meaning he hales from the Caucasus or Central Asia, or he was born in Moscow, but his parents moved there from one or other of these regions.

Even with this “politically correct” update, the genre remains problematic. It is more a symptom of the liberal intelligentsia’s failure to account for its own role in generating and maintaining the successive tyrannies that have plagued Russia since the nineteenth century, when the intelligentsia per se could be said to have been born as a kind of social subclass or metaclass, than it is a window onto the world of the “common people.”

To put it less murkily, if you stop talking to “taxi drivers” and listen to what actual Russians of all shapes, sizes, colors, and classes have to say and find out how they have either adapted to the Putinist tyranny or resisted it, you are as likely to discover resistance and clear thinking among supposed members of the Russian folk, among the people whom liberal Russians contemptuously refer to as “philistines” (obyvateli), as you would among the self-identified liberal intelligentsia.

Over the last several years, this website has featured many such inspiring stories of grassroots, working-class and lower middle-class resistance to the current Russian despotism, including the saga of the country’s fiercely militant independent truckers and the tale of the so-called partisans of Suna, a group of pensioners in Karelia who camped out in their beloved local old-growth forest to protect it, its environment, and their own humble livelihoods from local officials and developers, who wanted to build a road through it and turn part of it into a sand quarry.

Of course, there have also been many tales of similarly fierce, thoughtful resistance by Russians who by virtue of their educations and professions could be classified as intelligentsia. It is just that the vast majority of such intelligenstia militants are too clear sighted to sink to the vulgar sociology and flagrant mythologeme that would blame uneducated, poor, downtrodden, disempowered, and mostly invisible Russians for the country’s problems and Putin’s long-lived and wholly engineered “popularity.” TRR

Fighting the Package, Wrapping It Tighter

Muscovites rally against the Yarovaya package on August 9, 2016, in Sokolniki Park. Photo courtesy of Oleg Yakovlev/RBC
Muscovites rallying against the Yarovaya package on August 9, 2016, in Sokolniki Park. Photo courtesy of Oleg Yakovlev/RBC

Petition to Repeal “Yarovaya Amendments” Musters Necessary Number of Votes
Maria Bondarenko
RBC
August 14, 2016

A petition calling for the repeal of the so-called Yarovaya anti-terrorism amendments has garnered over 100,000 signatures on the Russian Public Initiative website. It has now been sent to a federal expert working group for consideration.

As of ten minutes past midnight on Sunday, 100,098 people had voted in support of the initiative, while [1,439] people had voted against it. Voting has now been completed, and the initiative has been forwarded for further consideration.

According to the website, the deadline for deciding on the initiative is no more than two months from the date it was submitted for consideration.

According to the petition’s authors, the law “contradicts the Russian Federal Constitution and is absolutely useless from a technical point of view.”

“We ask Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev to repeal the law, since it requires enormous amounts of money, which could lead many Internet companies to bankruptcy and reduce the revenue the state receives from their taxes,” states the petition.

Tabled by MP Irina Yarovaya and Federation Council member Viktor Ozerov, the amendments to anti-terrorism laws were approved by the State Duma on June 24, and signed into law by the Russian president [sic] on July 7. The original law bill contained provisions for stripping people convicted of terrorism and extremism of their Russian citizenship, as well as those who had gone to work in foreign law enforcement agencies and courts or enlisted in [foreign] armies.

Many of the headline-making provisions concerning the IT sector were left in the legislation that was adopted, including those requiring telecom operators and Internet companies to save the text messages and conversations of users. Internet companies complained that the law [sic] would force a rise in prices for telecommunication services and requested that it be redrafted or postponed.

Rallies against the so-called Yarovaya package were held in Moscow and other Russian cities this past week.

Translated by the Russian Reader

_________

Proposed Russian Law Could “End Online Anonymity”
Moscow Times
August 12, 2016

New Russian legislation could force messaging service providers to identify their users and delete messages containing illegal content, Vedomosti newspaper reported Friday.

Such a law would effectively end the rights of users to online anonymity.

The legislation has been draftedd by Russia’s Media Communications Union (MKS), which represents Russia’s biggest service providers, three of which confirmed to Vedomosti that the project is currently under discussion.

Messaging services will have to “rapidly block messages or publications which contain information banned by Russian law,” Vedomosti reported. If they do not comply, Russia’s media watchdog maintains the right to limit access to the service.

The law bill may be presented in the fall to a parliamentary group headed by Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, a MKS source told Vedomosti.

A spokesperson for Rostelecom, a mobile operator working on the legislation, told Vedomosti that the precise details are still being discussed and that mobile operators previously had no such legal obligation to monitor the content of users’ messages.

Users will no longer be able to write anonymously online, which is an infringement of their constitutional rights, according to a spokesman at Russian Internet giant Yandex. He also said the law could force Internet companies to leave the Russian market and could lead to a drop-off in competition and an overall weakening of the sector.

Some believe the new legislation is unnecessary as all provisions for regulating messenger services are contained in anti-terrorism legislation approved this summer by President Vladimir Putin.

The anti-terrorism laws, authored by ultra-conservative Duma Deputy Irina Yarovaya, require messaging companies to monitor the content of phone calls and messages and store them for six months. All messaging apps that use encryption will also be required to add additional code and allow access to Russia’s security services.

NB. The preceding article was lightly edited to make it sound less like a hasty translation or summary of the article that originally appeared in Vedomosti.