Medical personnel examine the facilities at a temporary hospital for Covid-19 patients at the Crocus exhibition centre in Moscow on Monday
Medical personnel examine the facilities at a temporary hospital for Covid-19 patients at the Crocus exhibition centre in Moscow on Monday © Sergei Chirikov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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Russia’s national death toll from coronavirus could be 70 per cent higher than the government’s official data show, as the Kremlin struggles to curb the spread of Covid-19 despite a seven-week long lockdown.

The Financial Times’ analysis of all-cause mortality data in Moscow, the capital, and St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, found 2,073 more deaths in April relative to the historical average of the previous five years.

Official Covid deaths in the two cities came to just 629 for the same period, leaving 1,444 deaths in excess of normal mortality levels unaccounted for. If added to the reported national figure of 2,009 Covid deaths as of Monday morning, this would mean a 72 per cent increase in Russia’s national death toll.

Russia has made it illegal to publish or discuss “fake news” about the pandemic in the country, a decision that critics say could be used to muzzle independent media reports that contradict the government’s official statements.

President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly told citizens that the pandemic is “under control”, despite claims from a doctors’ association linked to opposition activists that the government has covered up the scale of the medical crisis.

The Kremlin has pointed to official data showing higher numbers of tests and lower death tolls than other big countries as signs that it is tackling the pandemic, but the country’s health ministry has admitted that not everyone who dies while infected with Covid-19 will have the virus listed as their cause of death.

The FT found 1,841 more deaths in Moscow in April when compared with the average number for that month over the past five years, according to data released by the city authorities. That is three times the government’s official tally of 600 deaths from coronavirus in the city last month.

Moscow is the epicentre of Russia’s coronavirus pandemic, and accounts for more than half the country’s deaths and total infections. The excess mortality figures show Moscow’s death toll is the highest figure for April since at least 2010.

Chart showing about 1,800 excess deaths recorded in Moscow during April, three times the city’s reported number of Covid deaths for the same period

Data from St Petersburg’s city authorities show 232 excess deaths last month compared with the historical average, against the government’s official coronavirus death toll for the city of just 29 people.

The figure of a 72 per cent undercount is a conservative estimate, as it is based on excess deaths in Moscow and St Petersburg alone. If other Russian cities or regions also record excess deaths above their reported Covid death numbers, the magnitude of the national undercount would increase.

Detailed statistics on all-cause mortality in other regions of the country were not available. National data for April will only be published in June. Russia’s ministry of health did not respond to a request for comment from the FT.

In response to the FT's analysis, Russia's deputy prime minister Tatiana Golikova told reporters that the government's data was correct, and that the country has "never manipulated official statistics.”

Editor’s note

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Experts believe that excess deaths paint a more accurate picture of the pandemic’s true toll because countries’ methodologies for reporting Covid deaths differ widely. David Spiegelhalter, professor of the public understanding of risk at Cambridge university, has described this method as “the only unbiased comparison you can make between different countries”.

All-cause mortality statistics may include some deaths not directly caused by Covid-19. However, during this period “mortality from numerous conditions such as traffic accidents and occupational industries possibly went down” due to the lockdowns, said Marketa Pechholdova, assistant professor of demography at the University of Economics, Prague.

According to Russia’s official statistics, the country has 221,344 cases of coronavirus, making it the world’s third-most affected country. It has the world’s second-fastest growing case count after the US and announced a new record daily increase on Monday — its ninth day in a row of more than 10,000 new cases.

Georgiy Frank, the health ministry’s head pathologist, told local radio station Echo Moscow last week that it would not be “correct” if all deaths of people who had tested positive for Covid-19 were listed as being caused by the virus. “Covid is often the cause, but not always,” he said.

Letter in response to this article:

Russia’s crisis response deserves fairer coverage / From Andrey Kelin, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the UK, London, UK

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