This post sums up the coronavirus epidemic in Russia in 2020. There will subsequently be a larger post surveying the world at large and prospects for its containment before the New Year.
The observation that Russia is massive understating its COVID-19 mortality rate was first noticed by bloggers around May, when they noticed that a disproportionately high share of doctors seemed to be dying and that preliminary deaths registrations in the ZAGS system were far higher than official Corona deaths*.
[EDIT: Kobak posted graphs for November hours after I did this post, so I updated.] According to stats professor/blogger Dmitry Kobak, excess mortality during April-
October November 2020 amounted to 184,000 deaths (+18% overall) 264,000 deaths (+23% overall)**:
Here is a map of its evolution, month by month, from April to
And here it is by regions**:
That is because, unlike Western Europe, Russia is being struck much harder by the second wave. It is going to get worse before it gets better, with excess deaths probably rising to close to 300,000 by the end of the year (the US will have ~450,000). In net terms, it’s now clear that Russia has done worse than the US, as well as most or quite possibly all EU countries. At the end of the day, that’s probably not that surprising. While Russia’s population is not exceptionally old by European standards, it’s certainly less healthy at any given age (strong lingering legacy of binge drinking, with a pre-Corona life expectancy of 73 years), living spaces are crowded and automobile ownership is low by Western standards, winters are long, and healthcare quality is “Second World”, not EU or US level. Moreover, despite its reputation as a “police state”, Putin hasn’t seen fit to do anything useful with those powers: Mask ordinance enforcement is much less stringent than in most European countries, as in the West there is no centralized quarantines, and it upholds a “mainstream” attitude to travel bans**.
EDIT 2012/12/29: Literally as I posted it, preliminary Rosstat data came in for Nov 2020, showing +78,000 deaths increase y/y this month & bringing excess mortality total to 245,592 for the period of the Corona epidemic. Confirms that end year figures should be around 300k, or 50% higher than the US in per capita terms.
However, where Russia did shine is in PR, with most Russians genuinely convinced that the Corona situation is much worse in the US – despite its per capita death rate now approaching to 50% above the latter’s. Though I suppose the American media’s achievement in meming that the US did a better job with Corona than China is the more impressive accomplishment – after all, at least US and Russian excess mortality is at least on the same order of magnitude, whereas China’s is two orders of magnitude lower.
If there’s a region of the world that I got more “wrong” than right in terms of Corona impact it is, ironically, Russia and the ex-USSR. I was too optimistic on Russia, and now on the V4 as well, which has also been ravaged by the second wave. Ironically, my initial pessimism on the Ukraine may be proved correct after all – especially considering that it will be the last major country in this region to get access to vaccines (they will only be able to start vaccinating no earlier than in February).
This also doesn’t mean that Western journalists who covered the pandemic in Russia were accurate or useful in the slightest. To the contrary, they were actively spreading fake news that Russia was already undergoing a coronavirus epidemic as early as February and publishing tabloid-style headlines implying Putler was pushing medics out of hospital windows. Conversely, with scant exceptions, they almost entirely failed to cover the hard statistical evidence that Russia was purposefully downplaying the Corona death toll, with the topic being picked up near exclusively by Russian data bloggers and liberal journals. The Western journalists have since moved on to the greener pastures of creating black PR against the Sputnik V vaccine. This demonstrates the long-running truism that Western journalism on Russia is negative value added – even on topics where it is both perfectly possible and ethically necessary to highlight Russian failure and deception, they prefer to make things up.
However, there are two brighter notes. Despite the oil price collapse, the Russian economy has also managed 2020 relatively well. Its GDP will decline less than the US or almost any EU country. I assume this is a result of lax Corona restrictions after the first wave in May, the redirection of tourism to domestic destinations, and probably a greater general resilience of the economy to oil price shocks six years after the end of the commodity super cycle. As such, it is quite the irony that whereas my otherwise very good Corona predictions were overly optimistic with respect to Russia (I thought it’d have fewer deaths per capita than the US or the UK, which was true in the first wave but turned very wrong by the second wave), they were to the contrary unduly pessimistic so far as the Russian economy was concerned (I predicted its GDP would fall by 10% back in March, in reality, it should fall by just ~4% this year, which is better than in almost all Western countries and all the BRICS except China).
The other minor Russotriumph is the successful development of the Sputnik V vaccine by the Gamaleya Institute, and its creeping international acceptance – regardless of the blitz directed against it by Western propagandists and their domestic Russian allies***. Sputnik V has had 700 million orders, putting it in the “Big Five” along with AstraZeneca (3 billion), Novavax (1.3 billion), and Pfizer and Sanofi (700 million each). Some interest has even been expressed by countries at the edge of the Western sphere, such as Israel and Hungary. A few days ago, the Gameleya signed a memorandum of cooperation with AstraZeneca.
The Sputnik V vaccine may soon be joined by another vaccine, the EpiVacCorona developed by the Vector Institute.
Ukraine almost entirely avoided the first wave due to low travel intensity, and a strict and early lockdown more drastic than in either Russia or floomer Belarus; as of Jan-Sept 2020, it still had 2% lower deaths y/y (436,500 then vs. 426,700 now). However, as in the rest of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, September is when the second wave began to really pick up pace – see map below – so this state of affairs will almost certainly sharply reverse now. As in the rest of East Europe, it has no appetite for a second, longer period of lockdowns.
According to a report by the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, excess mortality for September was already 14% higher than a year before (see map right), and October is going to become very sharply worse still.
As noted above, the Ukraine is notable in that – along with most of Sub-Saharan Africa – it has only managed to secure access to vaccines for just 5% of its population. Meanwhile, non-EU but Russia-aligned countries like Belarus should get the Sputnik V vaccine soon after Russian domestic requirements are satisfied. Consequently, even though Ukraine has had less excess mortality to date than Russia or Belarus, it may ultimately converge to or exceed their level due to the extra few months they’ll have to make do with no vaccines. This is what happens when you’re not independent rich, and have no indigenous vaccine production capacities, nor any close relationships with those countries that do.
Belarus doesn’t release preliminary demographics data these days, can’t say much about it apart from the fact that circumstantial data (leaks; Google searches for “loss of sense of smell”; etc) suggests it’s following the general Russian/East European trajectories. There is a good chance we will only get a good picture of developments there after a year or two.
Kazakhstan has curiously seen a much sharper mortality spike in its southern, more Muslim, and much younger regions (map right shows excess mortality increase in Jan-Sep 2020 y/y).
This is confirmed by the ethnic data: Excess mortality rose by ~12% for Europeans (Russians, Germans, Tatars); ~37% for Kazakhs; ~46% for Uzbeks. Curiously, though, Koreans saw excess mortality of ~35%, despite having the demographic profiles of Europeans.
* Map of the undercount, via @popdemography Twitter account:
** Russia blocked flights from China soon after word spread of coronavirus, but waited until March 18 to block EU flights and blocked flights from the UK over its new strain about a day after the Netherlands and Germany.This is telling where kremlins’ actual reference points lie.
*** Many of these liberal hypocrites have nonetheless rushed to get themselves vaccinated with Sputnik V as soon as it became available to the general public.
Other Russia-related Corona reading:
- Zona.Media: 120 тысяч погибших с начала пандемии. «Медиазона» исследовала избыточную смертность в России (Nov 23)
- Alla Astakhova: Недосчитались (interview with demographer Alexey Raksha)
- Alexander Dragan: Рекорды смертности в октябре. Как поисковые запросы предсказали прирост смертей в регионах
- Novaya Gazeta: Охотники за аномалиями (Dec 28) – comprehensive writeup of statistical ways to detect Corona-related fraud.