She entered the hospital morgue, and the bodies were everywhere, a dozen in black bags stretched out on stretchers. She went straight to the autopsy room and begged the black jacket guard, “May I speak to the doctor who opened my father’s body?”
Olga Kagarlitskaya’s father had been admitted to the Covid-19 infirmary weeks earlier. Now he was dead and the cause of death was given as “non-specific viral pneumonia”. By recording the scene with his smartphone, Kagarlitskaya wanted to know the truth. But the guard fired her.
Russian government statistics reveal that there were thousands of similar cases across the country last year. At least 300,000 more people died in the pandemic last year than reflected in the most cited official statistics on Russia.
Not all of these deaths were necessarily due to the virus. But they deny President Vladimir Putin when he says his country controls the virus better than anyone.
In fact, a New York Times analysis of death rates shows that deaths in Russia during last year’s pandemic were above the average by 28% – a larger increase than seen in the United States and the United States. most countries in Europe.
“People weren’t aware of the objective situation,” Kagarlitskaya said. “And if you are not aware of the objective situation, you are not afraid.”
For much of the past year, Russia has seemed more interested in the economic and public relations aspects of the pandemic than in tackling the virus itself. After a rigid two-month freeze last spring, the government lifted almost all restrictions this summer. This decision was healthy for public opinion and the economy, but the disease spread faster.
In the fall, Russian scientists had developed a vaccine against Covid-19 widely regarded as one of the best in the world. But the Kremlin has placed more emphasis on using the Sputnik V vaccine to score geopolitical points than to immunize the population.
However, the clearest indication of the state’s priorities is minimizing the coronavirus death rate. For many critics, this has led much of the public to ignore the dangers of the disease and the importance of receiving the vaccine.
The official coronavirus toll in Russia was 102,649 on Saturday (10). Adjusted for the respective populations, this figure, published by state television and the WHO (World Health Organization), is much lower than that of the United States and most of Western Europe.
But the official Rosstat news agency, which reports on deaths from all causes, tells a very different story. According to an analysis by the NYT of historical data, between April and December 2020, the number of deaths in Russia exceeded the normal by 360 thousand. Rosstat data for January and February of this year shows the number now exceeds 400,000 above-average deaths.
In the United States, with more than double the population of Russia, these “excess deaths” since the start of the pandemic have reached 574,000 inhabitants. Based on this measure, which many demographers consider the most accurate way to estimate the total number of Covid deaths, the pandemic has killed around one in 400 people in Russia, including one in 600 in the United States.
“It’s hard to find a country with a worse development” in terms of Covid mortality, independent demographer Aleksei Raksha said in Moscow. “The government is doing everything it can to avoid drawing attention to these facts.”
The Russian government said its official tally only includes deaths that have been confirmed to be directly caused by the coronavirus. Additional cases confirmed by autopsies are part of a separate tally published monthly by Rosstat. They had reached 162,429 at the end of last year and exceeded 225,000 in February.
But large regional disparities contradict the idea that the reason for the low official count is only methodological in nature.
The city of Moscow recorded 28,233 more deaths in 2020, according to figures from Rosstat, and had 11,209 deaths confirmed by Covid as part of the official tally. The Samara region – a relatively prosperous area where the Volga river approaches Kazakhstan, passing through oil fields and automobile factories – has recorded 10,596 excess deaths, a jump of 25% above the death rate of 2019. But only 606 coronavirus deaths were officially reported in the region last year.
“The published figures are reliable,” said Armen Benyan, Samara’s health minister. “And they are what they are.”
He acknowledged that most of the excess deaths in his region were in fact caused by the pandemic in one way or another. A coronavirus patient who suffered a heart attack, for example, would not have appeared in the official tally.
The low official death toll is helping Russians downplay the dangers in some cases – and deeply suspicious of government messages about the pandemic.
A public opinion poll from last October found that most Russians do not believe the figures released by the government on coronavirus cases. And half of those who don’t believe the official figure is too high, the other half find it too low.
Another opinion poll, in February, found that 60% of Russians did not intend to take the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and that the majority believed the coronavirus to be a biological weapon.
In the Samara region, the mother of Inna Pogozheva, a gynecologist and obstetrician, died in November after being hospitalized with Covid-19, on the basis of a CT scan. Wearing rubber boots and protective clothing, funeral officials took her mother’s body from the morgue to the hearse in a closed coffin, then sprayed disinfectant on each other.
But the death certificate did not mention the virus.
Pogozheva said he didn’t know what to believe about the pandemic. She’s not sure whether to believe the Gates Foundation may be behind her, as false conspiracy theories are widely circulating.
But one thing is certain, he said: She will not be vaccinated, even after seeing the devastation caused by Covid up close. After all, if you can’t believe your mother’s state-issued death certificate, why should you believe what the Russian government says about vaccine safety?
“Who knows what was mixed in this vaccine?” She asked. “You can’t trust anyone, especially when it comes to this situation.”
Pogozheva submitted a request for an investigation into the cause of his mother’s death. The relatives of a health professional whose death has been proven from Covid-19 contracted at work are entitled to special assistance paid by the State.
Kagarlistkaya, whose father was a paramedic, managed to get his cause of death transferred to Covid-19 after his outrage went viral on Instagram and the governor of Samara personally intervened on his behalf.
Despite all the deaths, opposition in Russia to the government’s decision to keep businesses open over the past fall and winter was minimal, even among Putin’s critics. Some attribute this to Russian stoicism or fatalism, or the lack of an alternative to sustaining the economy, given minimal state aid.
In the Samara region, according to excess death statistics, the pandemic has killed up to one in 250 people. Viktor Dolonko, editor of a cultural newspaper in the city of Samara, said about 50 people he knew, many of whom were part of the region’s vibrant arts scene, died during the pandemic.
But Dolonko believes Samara shouldn’t have closed her theaters to stop the spread of the disease. At present, theaters are allowed to operate with 50% of the normal audience.
He considers the deaths in the pandemic to be tragic, but that they mainly occurred among the elderly or those who had other health problems unrelated to the virus. Dolonko, 62, said he wore a mask in crowded places and washed his hands frequently – and regularly went to exhibitions and gallery openings.
“You can choose to continue living with care, or to close yourself at home and stop living,” he explained. “Unlike you [ocidentais], Russians know what it’s like to live in extreme conditions.