Russia on Monday said its coronavirus death toll was more than three times higher than it had previously reported, making it the country with the third-largest number of fatalities.
For months President Vladimir Putin has boasted about Russia’s low fatality rate from the virus, saying earlier this month that it had done a “better” job at managing the pandemic than western countries.
But since early in the pandemic, some Russian experts have said the government was playing down the country’s outbreak.
On Monday Russian officials admitted that was true.
The Rosstat statistics agency said that the number of deaths from all causes recorded between January and November had risen by 229,700 compared to the previous year.
“More than 81% of this increase in mortality over this period is due to Covid,” said Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova, meaning that over 186,000 Russians have died from Covid-19.
Russian health officials have registered more than three million infections since the start of the pandemic, putting the country’s caseload at fourth-highest in the world.
But they have only reported 55,265 deaths – a much lower fatality rate than in other badly hit countries.
Russia has been criticised for only listing Covid deaths where an autopsy confirms the virus was the main cause.
Alexei Raksha, a demographer who left Rosstat in July, told AFP last week that the Russian health ministry and the consumer health ministry falsify coronavirus numbers.
Rosstat’s new figures mean that Russia now has the world’s third-highest Covid-19 death toll behind the US with 333,140 and Brazil with 191,139, according to an AFP count.
The figures came as authorities hold out against reimposing a nationwide lockdown in the hopes of buttressing a struggling economy even as the country is battered by a second wave of infections.
Russia’s government predicts the economy will shrink by 3.9% this year, while the Central Bank expects an even deeper decline.
During his annual end-of-year press conference earlier this month, Putin rejected the idea of imposing the kind of lockdown many European countries introduced going into the Christmas holidays.
“If we follow the rules and demands of health regulators, then we do not need any lockdowns,” he said.
While strict measures have been imposed in some major cities, authorities in many regions have limited restrictions to mask-wearing in public spaces and reducing mass gatherings.
But many Russians flout social distancing rules and in recent weeks the country’s outbreak has overwhelmed poorly funded hospitals in the regions.
Russia has instead pinned its hopes on coralling its outbreak by vaccinating people en masse with its homemade Sputnik V jab, named after the Soviet-era satellite.
The country launched a mass vaccination programme earlier this month, first inoculating high-risk workers aged between 18 and 60 without chronic illnesses.
Over the weekend people older than 60 got the green light to receive the shot.
On Monday Sputnik V’s developer, the state-run Gamaleya research centre, said that around 700,000 doses had so far been released for domestic use.
However Russia has not said how many people it has vaccinated so far, and according to recent surveys by state-run pollster VTsIOM and the Levada polling agency only 38% of Russians plan to get the shot.