How serious is the Covid crisis in Russia? Packed mortuaries and excessive deaths tell a darker story than official figures suggest

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“This is what our nights are like: horrible,” says a male voice recounting the footage, given to CNN by a major opposition-linked Russian doctors ‘union, “Doctors’ Alliance,” which says it was recorded at in mid-October by a member of staff at Ulyanovsk hospital, a town about 800 km east of Moscow.

“Two more in our room,” he said, filming a corpse. “This is how Covid-19 kills everyone. ”

This gruesome video is just one of many videos obtained by CNN that reveal appalling conditions at overcrowded facilities. Some images show morgues with bodies, undressed, stacked on top of each other on dirty floors, in scenes that look more like war zones than hospitals.

As Russia struggles to bring the pandemic under control, the videos are one of many signs pointing to a much higher actual death toll than official figures suggest.

Russia claims that as of November 16, more than 33,000 people have died from Covid-19. But that figure is disputed by critics who say the Kremlin underestimates the figures.”I think the real number is [around] 130,000 people, ”said Alexey Raksha, a former government statistician who made his estimates based on official data on excessive deaths – the number of deaths exceeding what would normally be expected – to assess the pandemic’s toll. .

Using data from local registers, Raksha estimates that Russia reached around 160,000 to 170,000 more deaths from April to November. It attributes around 80% of those deaths to Covid-19 – an average number aggregated from similar statistics released by Western countries.

Between April and September 2020, the official figure for excess mortality in Russia was around 117,000 more deaths than last year, according to Rosstat, the Russian statistical agency. The official death toll from Covid-19 for this period is around 21,000 people.

There is no Rosstat data available for October and November yet, but judging by official figures released by the country’s coronavirus response center, the spread of the pandemic has accelerated rapidly.

Raksha says he left Rosstat in July after speaking publicly about how the agency counts coronavirus-related deaths. He says the gap between the official numbers and his calculations is due to how Russia classifies its Covid victims.

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Rosstat uses a four-level classification system, he explains. According to the agency’s website, these are: 1. the patient who tested positive for Covid-19 before death; 2. when Covid-19 is presumed to be the leading cause of death but should be confirmed by an autopsy or additional research; 3. when the virus has contributed to death in people with underlying conditions; 4. when Covid-19 is confirmed but is not considered a major factor in the death.

“Only the first level of victim, when the patient tested positive for coronavirus before dying, is recorded as a death from Covid-19,” Raksha told CNN. According to Raksha, deaths in the other three levels are excluded from the official figures.

Neither the Russian Ministry of Health, nor public health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, nor Rosstat responded to CNN’s requests for comment.

A scene from a video given to CNN showing an overcrowded morgue in Russia's Ulyanovsk region in October.

This counting method differs from World Health Organization guidelines, which state that all deaths related to Covid-19 should be counted unless there is “another clear cause that cannot be linked To illness.

However, as it battles the pandemic, Russia still knows how to put on a good show. In August, with great fanfare, it became the first country to register a vaccine against the coronavirus, Sputnik V, even before the crucial Phase 3 trials began. This vaccine, which has sparked skepticism from outside scientists, has not yet been widely administered.

CNN also gained rare access to a state-of-the-art 1,300-bed temporary coronavirus hospital in Moscow, housed in what used to be a world championship ice skating stadium called the “Palace of Ice”.

The Krylatskoye Ice Palace, which has been converted to a coronavirus field hospital in Moscow.

“The crisis is complicated but manageable,” Chief Medical Officer Andrey Shkoda told CNN as he showed us around. “Here we have all the necessary diagnostic equipment, ultrasound, anesthesia and ventilators. ”

Above it, a gigantic screen that usually shows skating or ice hockey scores to the crowd is now used to show movies to patients during their treatment.

The chief medical officer said the hospital was completely digital; each patient is assigned a bracelet with a QR code that links to all of their medical records.

“This is standard care,” he told CNN, Moscow and beyond.

Yet this optimistic picture of a country in full control of the pandemic, with a network of spacious medical facilities, seems increasingly at odds with graphic images emerging from hospitals, a closer look at official statistics, and testimony. of some medical workers.

The Russian government last month admitted growing pressure on its medical facilities, with Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova saying hospital beds in five of the worst-affected regions were already at over 95% of capacity.

Staff with the body of a deceased patient at Novomoskovsky Medical Center in Kommunarka, near Moscow, in April.

An ambulance driver from the Saratov region in southwest Russia – who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity due to fear of repercussions at work – said the situation at his hospital was “a mess”.

“Doctors even refuse to admit elderly patients with breathing difficulties,” he said. “They tell them that it is not necessary to hospitalize them. But the real reason is that there are not enough places in the department. ”

And in another video given to CNN, filmed in an overcrowded morgue, a male voice speaks above the gruesome footage: “You could hardly find a place here. It’s like a horror movie. “

Anna Chernova in Moscow contributed to this report.

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