Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have failed to disclose actual death tolls from the virus. In many cases, they have underreported positive cases and death counts, making it difficult to understand how deadly the virus has been. Now, with Russia revising its death toll from COVID-19, it raises further questions. Why does a country lie about deaths from the virus?

For months, countries like Russia and China have boasted about their success in controlling the outbreak, helping them achieve a low death rate and avoid massive casualties like the US. But on Monday (December 28), Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova admitted that Russia had played down the outbreak and death tolls. Her acknowledgment confirmed what doctors and scientists had been saying for months — Russia lied about its COVID-19 mortality.

According to a report from the Rosstat statistics agency, between January and November 2020, Russia had recorded 229,700 more deaths from all causes than in 2019. Golikova said over 81 percent of the number was directly linked to COVID-19, meaning around 186,000 Russians had died from the disease. So far, Russia, despite reporting over 3 million positive cases, maintained that the death toll was 55,265. President Vladimir Putin boasted about doing a "better job" than western countries. But the additional number made Russia the third worst-hit country after the US and Brazil in terms of fatality.

Russia COVID-19
As per reports, Russia underreported COVID-19 deaths (representational image) Wikimedia Commons

Why Did Russia Lie?

There is no straight answer to the question. For autocratic countries like Russia, China, North Korea, Turkmenistan amongst many others, there could be various reasons. As for Russia, according to demographer Alexei Raksha, who quit Rosstat in July, told AFP that the Russian health ministry had deliberately underreported caseload and death toll.

The primary reason to underreport the death toll is the lack of actual data. As per the World Health Organization (WHO), around 38 million deaths each year aren't recorded. That's about two-thirds of the global death count. One big reason for that is not informing the local authorities.

"The pandemic has been a game-changer. It has prompted the realization among national governments that comprehensive death registration is the most preferable way of understanding mortality," Romesh Silva, a demographer for the United Nations Population Fund, told NPR in September.

Tatyana Golikova
Russia's Deputy PM Tatyana Golikova, on Monday, admitted to underreporting COVID-19 deaths Wikimedia Commons

Hiding Failure in Healthcare Management

But for Russia, it could be a deliberate strategy. With Russia resorting to a confirmed autopsy report to record COVID-19 deaths, it had missed out on hundreds of thousands of deaths. Doing so, Russia revealed a similar strategy to China. Both countries — designated enemies of the US — have tried to undermine President Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic by underreporting deaths.

In Wuhan, China where the virus first emerged, local authorities deliberately underreported positive cases and death tolls to avoid being on the wrong side of the country's leader. In Russia, it was no different. In both China and Russia, local healthcare authorities were under-funded and had no means to tackle such outbreaks. As hospitals became overwhelmed, to hide the government's failure, hiding the actual number became an easy route out.

Avoiding Recession

The other reason is to avoid an economic shutdown. When a country reports high death tolls from a virus, it would need to impose lockdown and other strict restrictions, leading to a partial or full shutdown of the economy. In the past nine months, it has already been proven that lockdowns are catastrophic for the economy.

The Russian government has already hinted that the economy would shrink by at least 3.9 percent while the country's central bank said it could be even steeper. Hence, Putin wants to avoid such a scenario as it would be a blot on his government. Such failure in autocratic countries could lead to civil and military unrest that leaders want to avoid.

Russia COVID-19 testing
Russia reduced daily COVDI-19 tests despite surging cases Our World in Data

Faulty Testing Mechanism

However, if it is believed that Russia hasn't lied, the other reason could be a faulty testing mechanism. Russia reduced testing for COVID-19 by 10 percent in December after recording surging cases in November. In many instances, doctors refused to test while in some cases, it took days to get a test done.

The other factor is the usage of rapid antigen tests over more reliable RT-PCR. In many countries, governments relied on both but rapid antigen tests are not always reliable. In the case of India, a report from NDTV said that the country missed out on nearly 3.4 million cases due to reliance on rapid antigen tests. Around 40 percent of the tests were rapid antigen tests, increasing the possibility of missing out on many cases. It is unknown whether Russia tested all of the possible cases with RT-PCR.