Moscow lifted some of the harshest coronavirus restrictions on Tuesday – Pavel Golovkin/AP
The World Health Organization has suggested that Russia should review the way it counts coronavirus deaths, describing the country’s low death toll as “unusual”.
The comments by a senior WHO official have once again raised suspicions about Russia’s Covid-19 death toll, which currently stands at just over 6,000 and is extremely low compared with other European countries. Russian officials have attributed it to widespread and early testing as well as the demographics.
“The outbreak in Russia has been following a trajectory similar to other European countries, that is why Russia’s “low death rate is hard to understand,” Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, told a briefing on Wednesday.
“It would be important that Russian authorities review the way in which death certification is done to assure themselves that they’re accurately certifying deaths in the appropriate way,” he said.
Mr Ryan added, however, that WHO officials do not imply that there is “systematic” under-reporting in Russia.
His remarks have irked many in Moscow.
Gennady Onishchenko, a former long-time chief of Russia’s health care watchdog and now a lawmaker, has accused Mr Ryan of politicising the outbreak and trying to “discredit” the country’s efforts to fight the disease.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that he does not find Russia’s low mortality unusual and expressed confidence that Russia’s healthcare watchdog would address the WHO’s concerns.
The WHO’s guidelines for classifying Covid-19 deaths recommend that health care workers put Covid-19 in the death certificate even if the virus was ruled to be an “underlying” but not the primary cause of death.
The organisation specifies that Covid-19 deaths “should be counted independently of preexisting conditions that are suspected of triggering a severe course of Covid-19.”
Servicemen of the 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division – Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images
Russia’s interpretation of the guidelines has left hundreds of deaths unreported.
Healthcare workers have been following a conservative protocol in attributing coronavirus deaths, which has allowed them to put down hundreds of fatalities of Covid-19 patients as those caused by underlying conditions.
The nation of 144 million has officially reported just 6,532 coronavirus deaths despite the fact that the city of Moscow acknowledged on Wednesday that over 5,000 people with coronavirus died in the Russian capital in May alone.
Numerous regions have reported hundreds of excess deaths, while just dozens were officially recorded as coronavirus deaths.
Moscow’s health department released full data on Wednesday showing that 5,260 people with Covid-19 died in the city in May, which is twice as high as the official death toll. Authorities have revised the overall figure but that did not change the cumulative tally in their daily updates. Nor does it include the revised death toll for April that doubled upon revision.
The epidemic may be on the wane in Moscow where the outbreak began earlier than in the rest of the country, but Russia still posts between 8,000 and 9,000 new coronavirus cases a day.
That did not stop Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, from calling the vote for constitutional amendments on 25 June, claiming that Russia has “withstood the challenge” of the epidemic.
Analysts say Mr Putin is in a hurry to hold the vote that would allow him to run for office again and stay in power until 2036.
Russia has become the first country singled out by the WHO over its unusually low mortality, but concerns about under-reporting Covid-19 deaths have been raised in other countries including Brazil where the health ministry last week deleted all the cumulative death toll from its official website, fuelling speculation of a cover-up.
Four days later, Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered the government to resume publication of full coronavirus data.