Authoritarian governments have ‘obfuscated’ true Covid death tolls, analysis suggests

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Grave diggers wearing personal protective equipment bury a person at a graveyard in Saint Petersburg - REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
Grave diggers wearing personal protective equipment bury a person at a graveyard in Saint Petersburg - REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

Authoritarian governments have “obfuscated” the truth and suppressed their Covid-19 death figures, according to an analysis of excess mortality rates in more than 100 countries worldwide.

The study, published in eLife journal on Tuesday and known as the World Mortality Dataset, found countries including Tajikistan, Nicaragua, Belarus and Russia have been “substantially under reporting their Covid-19 deaths” throughout the pandemic.

The discrepancies are so large, the paper adds, that it “strongly suggests purposeful misdiagnosing or under reporting of Covid-19 deaths”.

For instance, in 2020 Tajikistan recorded just 90 coronavirus fatalities. But excess deaths - a measure of the number of deaths beyond what would have been expected in a ‘normal’ year - suggest that an added 9,000 people died last year.

Meanwhile in Belarus just 390 confirmed Covid-19 fatalities were reported in the first six months of the pandemic, compared to 5,700 excess deaths, while Nicaragua reported 140 coronavirus fatalities - excess deaths for that period stand at 7,000.

Russia, too, had a pronounced discrepancy: up until May 2020, some 110,000 deaths had been confirmed. The latest paper puts excess deaths at 500,000.

“In some countries, normally very authoritarian countries such as Russia, Belarus and Nicaragua, the polite thing to say is they are obfuscating [the] truth,” Ariel Karlinsky, an economist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and co-author of the paper, told The Times of Israel.

“I think they are lying to show the rest of the world they are powerful and everything is under control.”

The mismatch between official figures and excess deaths is far smaller elsewhere, especially in developed countries such as the United States and UK. But in much of the globe patchy testing has hampered efforts to track both cases and fatalities.

Though estimates vary, experts agree that the global death toll - which currently stands at 4.24 million - is a vast underestimate. Analysis from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation published in May puts the real figure at 6.9 million, while the Economist pointed to between seven and 13 million excess deaths.

The World Mortality Dataset - created by Mr. Karlinsky alongside Dmitry Kobak, a research scientist at Tübingen University in Germany - estimates there have been at least one million additional Covid-19 deaths. But the data does not cover the entirety of the pandemic, with figures ending in late 2020 or earlier for a substantial chunk of the 103 nations analysed.

However, while much of the world saw excess deaths jump substantially during the pandemic, nations which implemented stringent lockdown and social distancing measures - such as Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay - saw the reverse: excess death rates dropped below the yearly average, especially during winter.

This is most likely linked to reduced flu transmission, with the authors estimating that “influenza suppression alone can lead to a decrease of annual mortality by three to six per cent”.

Other infectious diseases have also been stifled by coronavirus-mitigation measures; for instance South Africa saw a noticeable drop in mortality rates among those under four years old during lockdowns, suggesting the circulation of infectious childhood diseases plummeted.

The team also collated data on how the pandemic has affected other causes of deaths, with a mixed picture emerging. Traffic accidents, for instance, fell in Europe and the Balkans but increased in the US. Homicides also increased in America in Germany, but fell in Peru, South Africa and France, while suicides appear to have risen in Japan but fallen in the US.

“As well as highlighting under-reporting, our study emphasises that the coronavirus has caused many more deaths than we would have expected to see,” Mr. Karlinsky said.

“This is important, because we have long heard some people claiming that Covid deaths are just a rebranding of ordinary deaths. This research shows clearly that even if you don’t designate the deaths as Covid deaths, there is a very noticeable increase in mortality in almost all of the countries we investigate.

“They used to say these are people who would be dying anyway. But the excess deaths calculation shows that many more people have been dying than you would normally see,” Mr. Karlinsky added.

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