Politics Society 26 July 2021

Investigation suggests officials hiding real COVID-19 numbers

Journalists from three independent media outlets — Meduza, Kholod and Mediazona — published an investigation Tuesday alleging the Ministry of Health has a secret record of 29 million cases of coronavirus in Russia. That’s almost five times higher than the official figures and would mean Russia ranks third in the world for absolute number of infections. The response from the authorities only succeeded in muddying the issue further.

What happened?

  • For three weeks this month, Moscow’s restaurants only allowed entry to people with a QR-code that included a unique serial number — and confirmed their vaccination status. These codes were also available to anyone who had recovered from COVID-19. The starting point for the investigation was a suspicion the codes and serial numbers were not being randomly generated.
  • So, journalists from Meduza, Mediazona and Kholod started checking the unique numbers associated. It soon became clear that they were made up of a regional code, the date when the individual was diagnosed with COVID-19, and the code’s serial number on a special register.
  • Then, the journalists started looking for the most recent certificates to be issued. One Mediazona reader — who was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March — gave reporters her QR-code. Based on the last eight digits of her number, 22 million people were placed on the register of confirmed COVID-19 before her.
  • Another QR-code that they saw suggested that — by mid-July — the number of people who had recovered from COVID-19 was already over 29 million. A source in a federal agency confirmed to Meduza the figures were accurate.

What’s the catch?

  • Despite the investigation, it’s far from clear how the Ministry of Health compiles its figures. One source told reporters the register was “inaccurate”.
  • And a source in one federal agency told Meduza that each region decided for itself how to add names to the register and some of them might even have included suspected cases of viral disease SARS.

What about the official figures?

  • The latest official figures on coronavirus state that Russia has seen 6 million cases. That’s five times fewer than the number indicated by the investigation.

What are the authorities saying?

  • After the investigation was published, officials hurried to refute the claims. It would perhaps even be fair to describe the response as ‘hysterical’. The federal agency coordinating Russia’s response to coronavirus said there were 29 million names in the register, but said this was the number of people vaccinated rather than who had had COVID-19. At first, the Health Ministry said the same.
  • But journalists pointed out that the official vaccination figures contradicted this claim. For example, on the QR-code of a person diagnosed with coronavirus in February, the serial number was 17 million — but at that time, Russia had only produced 11 million vaccine doses and just a few million people had been jabbed.
  • Then, the Health Ministry announced that the closed register actually included 39 million people — both diagnosed COVID-19 cases and fully-vaccinated individuals. It was unclear why, just a couple of days earlier, the Ministry of Health had been talking about separate registers for the two categories.

Why the world should care: There has never been much doubt the Russian authorities are manipulating coronavirus statistics. What is striking about the manipulation revealed by this investigation is the scale — and brazenness. It’s also striking that much-hyped digitalization creates problems for the authorities when reporters get access to electronic databases.