Analysis. Russia is third for infections in the world, with over 221,000 cases, as the country reopens for business. But the low number of deaths suggests stats are being manipulated.

For Putin, economic crisis is more fearful than COVID

On Monday, a day marked by bad news on the coronavirus front, Vladimir Putin again addressed the Russians on television, this time to announce the end of the national lockdown.

It was a surprising decision, and certainly a difficult one to make, but it was dictated first and foremost by economic reasons: “For too many Russians, the quality of life for themselves and their loved ones depends on their work, and this is why the quarantine is over as of today, while respecting the security measures,” said the Russian president.

The head of the Kremlin is still being tight-lipped about the actual numbers, but he clearly fears that the economic system may collapse by the fall: “The number of the unemployed has doubled in the space of a month,” Putin stressed.

Such numbers are being recorded in an ultra-neoliberal country where there is total freedom to fire one’s employees, and without social shock absorbers beyond a modest subsidy of 150 euros per month.

Only Moscow will remain closed until the end of the month, but only for the commercial sector: on May 18, construction sites will start operating again. Putin is feeling the winds of reopening blowing all around Europe and doesn’t want to get left behind, despite the fact that the numbers for the epidemic hardly support his decision. On Monday, the number of confirmed cases of infection in the country climbed above 221,000, putting Russia in third place in the tragic worldwide ranking, ahead of the UK and Italy and behind only Spain and the United States.

These numbers look very bad, especially taking into account that around 12,000 new infections were recorded on Monday alone. On Monday evening, there was a persistent rumor that hospital beds in Moscow were running out and that mobile COVID-19 wards were about to be opened at the gigantic VDNK exhibition center on the outskirts of the city and near the Dynamo football stadium.

However, the numbers that appear the least plausible are the low numbers of deaths. On Monday, the Moscow Times published a preview of its coming investigation on the increase in the number of deaths registered by the Municipality of Moscow for the month of April compared to the previous year. It found that there have been 1,855 more deaths in April than during the same month last year, which is about three times more than the number of coronavirus deaths officially recorded for the same period (658).

The overall official figure for the whole of Russia is at just over 2,000 deaths, which would make Russia the country with the lowest case fatality rate in the world — just 0.9% — among the countries with more than 40,000 confirmed cases.

However, experts insist that such a low mortality rate for the coronavirus in Russia appears implausible. And this is not just due to the difficulties in recording an accurate mortality rate for such a new disease. The Novaya Gazeta believes that the real death toll could be much higher, as the authorities in Russia have a record of falsifying mortality statistics.

A former employee of ROSSTAT, the national statistics institute, told the Gazeta—which previously published the investigations of Anna Politkovskaya—that the official data has been manipulated since the presidential decrees in May, as the regions had to commit to reducing the death rate.

“Because of the May decrees, statistics on the causes of deaths in Russia have stopped reflecting reality. The president announced impossible recovery targets, so the regional ministries of health began to falsify the numbers,” says the anonymous source questioned by the Novaya Gazeta.

According to the Moscow Times, the real number of deaths is much higher than the official one, not only in the capital but in several regions: in Sverdlovsk by 233%, in Saratov by 200% and in Ryazan by 60%.

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