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Is Russia’s 1% death rate believable?

Written by on 15 mai 2020

The case of Russia is an intriguing one. More than 250,000 registered coronavirus infections, but only just over 2,000 deaths. Are these figures really believable ? For Rod Kiewiet, a Professor of Political Science at the California Institute of Technology, potentially for political reasons, Russia is profiting from the fact that the virus’s most vulnerable demographic is the elderly. 

“Then it becomes a political decision. So if you have, for example, an 89 year-old guy who smoked all his life and is already on oxygen and in a nursing room and he gets coronavirus, is that what killed him ? I think that in Russia, if there are substantial comorbidity factors, then they can put that down on the death certificate.”

A strikingly high proportion of those 2,300 deaths are healthcare workers, raising the question, what about the patients ? Judy Twigg, Professor of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

“The numbers and even the list of names of health workers who have died of Covid-19 – it’s highly unlikely that such a large percentage of deaths have been only among health workers, and not among patients. This means that we are seeing huge undercounts of the deaths among patients as well.”

Professor Kiewiet notices this suspiciously low death rate not just in Russia, but all countries of the former Soviet Union in what is a curious correlation. 

“Countries of the former Eastern bloc and Soviet Union – Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Bulgaria, Serbia – they all have a very similar pattern of extremely low death rates. I feel that it may be that common heritage that is leading them to code those deaths in an extremely conservative way.”

Professor Twigg notes that such suspicions of underreported deaths in Russia will soon be verified with the upcoming release of mortality statistics for March and April 2020. 

“They will publish their statistics on mortality for March 2020, April 2020, and we will be able to compare the coding of those causes of deaths and the numbers of deaths to similar time periods for 2019 and 2018. Doing those year to year comparisons will give us at least a back of the envelope calculation on what the misclassification of death has been.”

The total number of deaths in Eastern European countries barely equates to a quarter of those in Western Europe’s most affected countries on their own – the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France.


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