Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Coronavirus

Is Russia lying to WHO on virus data?

  • Russian president Vladimir Putin (in centre on the right) at a coronavirus situation room in Moscow (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

Russia has defended its credibility on coronavirus data, after Belarus said its neighbouring country was "ablaze" with infections - and the EU accused Moscow of other "blatant lies".

"The reasons why the officially confirmed number of those infected in Russia at this stage remains relatively low may be of a complex character," a spokesman for the Russian EU embassy told EUobserver.

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  • Russia using CCTV to monitor people's movement (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

"Such facts should not be a basis for developing conspiracy theories," he said.

Russia was sharing up-to-date figures with international partners, including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and EU countries, in a "fast-changing" situation, he added.

"At the moment when I got [EUobserver's] request citing 93 cases [in Russia], it was already more than 100 confirmed and officially declared cases. And this figure, unfortunately, but objectively is about to increase," he said.

Russia had earlier reported 93 cases of coronavirus infection and no deaths to the WHO situation centre.

It updated that figure to 114 infections on Tuesday and to 147 by Thursday (19 March).

The country of 145m people has extensive business and tourism links with virus hotspots China, the EU, and Iran and has not imposed an internal lockdown.

Yet Russia's figures were lower than in micro-state Luxembourg (203 infections by Thursday) and worlds away from Italy (35,713 infections and 2,978 deaths).

Russia's testing authority, Rospotrebnadzor, also said it had tested over 116,000 people, making the country's ratio of tests to positive diagnoses (0.1%) by far the lowest in the world.

The Russian spokesman's mention of "conspiracy theories" came after Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko accused the Kremlin of vastly under-reporting the true picture.

"All of Russia is ablaze with coronavirus," Lukashenko had said on Monday, without providing evidence.

His comment did "not reflect reality", the Russian government also said in a statement.

Russian anomaly

Meanwhile, the anomaly on Russia infections might be due to lack of knowledge on how the virus spreads, the Russian EU embassy spokesman noted.

"Even qualified virologists or sociologists are not ready yet for a deep and comprehensive analysis of the situation in Russia, in the EU, or elsewhere in the world," he said.

"Scientists have just started studying the new virus," he added.

"Of course Russia's current numbers aren't credible, in the same way that they're not credible in most parts of the world," Judyth Twigg, a politics professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in the US, also told this website.

"Testing hasn't caught up with actual circulation of the virus. We're operating almost everywhere with incomplete information," she said.

The Russian anomaly might be due to Rospotrebnadzor's erratic testing methods, according to independent Russian newspaper The Moscow Times.

It might also be due to false negatives from inferior testing kits made by Vector Institute, a Rospotrebnadzor offshoot.

But if Russia deliberately lied to the WHO, it would not surprise Eugene Finkel, an international relations professor at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Washington.

Data politics

"I, personally, would not count on the Russian government telling the truth if the numbers become scary," he told EUobserver.

Russia's decrepit healthcare service, especially in small towns, might "have limited the government's ability to really know the exact numbers," he noted.

But crisis data was also part of Russian president Vladimir Putin's political calculations, Finkel said.

Putin was using Russia's crisis to ram through constitutional changes extending his reign, the JHU professor said.

The crisis helped "show everyone that he [Putin] is in charge and can protect the state from any imaginable threat," the professor added.

"But that means that the numbers need to be not too high," Finkel said.

"Russia has a pretty storied track record of deceiving domestic and foreign audiences and bodies on sensitive issues," he also said, citing Russia's propaganda campaign on the MH17 air disaster and its recent Olympic ban for sports doping as examples.

JHU compiles data on infections in a "coronavirus resource centre".

It monitors reliable media and social media for new cases. It also gets "direct" information from some health authorities and medical associations.

And it "confirms" case numbers with the WHO prior to publication, the JHU website says.

The WHO did not answer EUobserver when asked if it trusted Russia's figures.

But the UN agency in Geneva did not have a mechanism for verifying data, it said.

"We work with the data that we're given [by member states]," a WHO spokeswoman said.

'Playing with lives'

The WHO statistics aside, the EU foreign service has also accused Russia of conducting a "significant disinformation campaign" on other coronavirus issues.

The campaign was, as usual, designed to sow discord in Western countries, the EU service said in a public report.

Russia's "blatant lies" were "playing with people's lives", the EU warned.

"Stop the viral spread of disinformation. Wash hands, stay home if unwell," it said.

EU officials recorded more than 80 bogus stories on coronavirus by pro-Kremlin media in recent times.

One Russian TV station claimed it was a US biological weapon, for instance. A pro-Kremlin news website claimed Western pharmaceutical firms had exaggerated the pandemic, in another example.

At the same time, "Russian state-linked false personas" on social media were "pushing ... disinformation about the coronavirus in English, Spanish, Italian, German, and French", a second, internal EU report leaked to European media said.

But for its part, Russia lambasted the EU accusations.

"These kinds of cheapjack concoctions are not worth comment," the Russian EU embassy spokesman told EUobserver.

And those who the funded EU institutions were "likely to feel burning shame" over the counter-propaganda reports, he said.

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