5 May 2021
Somewhere in the bowels of the Russian Ministry of Health until recently was a tormented medical bureaucrat who had to calculate the daily Covid-19 death toll. He was tormented because he had been told that the number must not rise beyond 400.
We know that because for the past couple of weeks he was signalling frantically that the published number is a lie. He did that by reporting that the daily deaths were 399, then the next day 398, then 397, then up to 399 once more and all the way down again. Real-life statistics don’t work that way.
I didn’t say anything about it at the time because I didn’t want to get him in trouble, but they have clearly rumbled him because the reported numbers are now down in the low three hundreds. It was a brave but pointless gesture, because everyone already knew that the Russian government is lying about its Covid deaths.
No less an authority than Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova admitted it last December, saying that the real death toll as of that date was not the reported 57,000 but more than 186,000.
She even told us how she arrived at that figure. The number of deaths from all causes
reported in Russia from January to November last year was 229,000 higher than in 2019, she said, and “more than 81% of the increase in mortality over this period is due to Covid.” You can do it in your head: 81% of 229,000 total excess deaths is 186,000 Covid deaths.
That’s about the same number of deaths per million people that the United States and the United Kingdom had at that time. It’s certainly nothing to be proud of, but unless Russia’s performance has suddenly got much worse since then, Moscow has no more reason to be ashamed than Washington or London. So why lie about it like this?
There is a weird but widespread custom, especially prevalent among Russian bureaucrats and three-year-olds, in which you aggressively deny the plain truth even while you and your listener are both looking at it. “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” as Chico Marx put it in ‘Duck Soup’.
I used to think it was some sort of Communist tic, because I first encountered it in the old Soviet Union (late Brezhnev era). We were filming in Belgorod and drove past an abandoned, falling-down church, so I said “Look at the church.”
The whole crew saw it, but the minder said there was no church, and refused to go around the block for another look, and spent the rest of the day denying it. The whole country was a Potemkin village in those days, so you got used to that sort of thing, but I assumed it had gone out of fashion. It has not – at least, not at the Ministry of Health.
This kind of behaviour is not cost-free, because people come to assume you are lying even when you tell the truth. That is what allowed the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (Anvisa) to announce late last month that it won’t approve the purchase of 30 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
This is lethal stupidity. Almost four thousand Brazilians a day are dying from Covid-19 according to official figures (and perhaps ten thousand a day including the unrecorded deaths that occur at home). It’s worse in Brazil than anywhere else except India, and the Russian vaccine is quite safe.
Not ‘perfectly safe’, because none of them are. For every ten thousand or hundred thousand lives they save, one will be lost somewhere due to some tiny flaw in the vaccine or a contaminated needle or some other quirk of fate. We accept those odds, like we allow ambulances to speed through traffic knowing that once in a very long while that will cause a crash.
The respected British medical journal ‘The Lancet’ recently published results from nearly 20,000 people in a clinical trial, showing that Sputnik V is safe and has an efficacy of 91.6% at preventing symptomatic COVID-19. So why would Gustavo Mendes, Anvisa’s medicines and biological products manager, ban its import into Brazil?
Maybe because Anvisa is a federal government agency, and Mendes ultimately works for President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Donald Trump. It was a consortium of state governors who bought the Russian vaccine, and Bolsonaro is at war with them for trying to lock down their states and save lives.
The recycled Cold Warriors of the West are also trying to discredit Russia’s vaccines, of course, but Russia does itself no favours with its bluster and its lying boasts about its own success in fighting the virus at home (which, by the way, are misleading many young Russians to skip getting vaccinated).
Are there no grown-ups in the room at all?
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 12. (“She…deaths”; and “Not…crash”)