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In-Depth: Study says Russia is faking its COVID death toll

Russian hospitals
Posted at 6:47 PM, Mar 03, 2022

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – As the Kremlin wages an information war over the invasion of Ukraine, a new study concludes that Russia has been faking its COVID-19 death toll.

The analysis draws on a statistical principle discovered by a French mathematician named Poisson in the late 1800s. The principle states that random events, such as deaths, should display a certain amount of variance over time. Poisson’s equation is used in all kinds of forensics today.

In the US, COVID-19 deaths fluctuate significantly from day to day. This is what statisticians expect. But in August and September of 2021, Russia’s official daily COVID deaths showed almost no fluctuation, ranging from 746 to 799 deaths per day.

The study calculated the odds of encountering such an extreme lack of variation during that span. It found the chances of Russia’s data occurring organically were one in 142,857.

In other words, the data were almost certainly faked, said author Dmitry Kobak, a researcher at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

Based on Russia’s number of excess deaths, the country’s true COVID death toll likely exceeds 1.2 million, Kobak said.

UC San Diego communications professor Daniel Hallin said experts have long suspected that Russia has been manipulating COVID data to undercount deaths.

“The legitimacy of Putin’s rule depends on showing himself to be in control and able to handle any problem on his own,” he said. “So whenever you have a problem that starts to get out of control, the strategy is to cover that up.”

Those cover-ups take place at the local level, he said.

Local officials face punishment if they report unflattering data because higher-ups view infections and deaths as signs of managerial incompetence, said Olga Lazitski, a former Russian journalist pursuing a Ph.D. on Russian media at UC San Diego.

“If you show that your people are getting sick, it means you don’t provide them with safety protocols,” she said.

In the analysis, Kobak found the statistical red flags of data manipulation in 82 out of 85 of Russia’s federal regions.

Some analysts think COVID has put unique pressures on Putin himself. Photos and videos show Putin taking great lengths to physically distance himself from aides and leaders during meetings.

Lazitski said plenty of people in Russia suspect Putin’s self-imposed isolation from COVID contributed to his decision to invade Ukraine. Some Russian political scientists describe Putin’s leadership during the pandemic as a “bunker presidency,” Lazitski said.

“He was in the bunker for two years. He was not seeing anyone. He has this circle of people who are just an echo chamber of his wrong thoughts,” she said. “He’s so detached from reality. He doesn’t know what’s really happening.”

Last year, Russia’s population shrank by the largest amount since the fall of the Soviet Union, according to Russian government statistics.

So while Putin’s objectives in Ukraine are distinct from Russia's COVID-19 undercount, experts say there could be one overlapping theme: using a foreign war to distract from problems at home.