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‘You can throw the official figures in the trash’ Data analyst says Russia’s coronavirus statistics show signs of fraud

Source: Meduza
Egor Aleev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Boris Ovchinnikov, one of the founders of the “Data Insight” e-commerce research agency, says he’s analyzed Russia’s official coronavirus statistics and determined that the data could be falsified at the federal level.

Ovchinnikov studied the Russian government’s information about new COVID-19 cases between April 30 and May 24, finding that the reported numbers of new cases officially ended in the digits “99” four times in that timespan: 7,099 new infections on April 30, 10,699 new cases on May 8, 10,899 new cases on May 12, and 8,599 new cases on May 24.

The likelihood that new case numbers reported over the course of 25 days would end in the digits “99” four different times is 0.011 percent, “or one in 9,350,” Ovchinnikov explained on Facebook, calculating this probability through a binomial distribution. He argues that the strange coincidence could be random or evidence that numbers are being dictated “from above.”

The data analyst says the “reliability and validity” of coronavirus statistics in Russia started declining rapidly, beginning on April 20: “That was the first time in a long time (since April 4) when the number of new cases was less than the previous two days, and in fact the first ‘regiment’ began on April 20, when by the end of the month (up to and including April 29), the official figures showed a linear rather than exponential growth.”

Ovchinnikov says he initially suspected that Russia’s coronavirus statistics were being falsified only “in the regions” (outside Moscow and St. Petersburg). “And even on May 17, when eight regions simultaneously reported similar figures ending in 97 or 98, I attributed it to a random coincidence of thinking about sketching numbers, and not to centralized fraud,” he wrote on Facebook.

“You can throw the official figures on the number of infections into the trash; there’s no reason to believe they accurately reflect the epidemic’s development. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t. We have no idea. It’s absurd to evaluate fraudulent numbers,” argued Ovchinnikov.

In an interview with the independent television network Dozhd, Ovchinnikov expressed some concern that he might be prosecuted for his commentary on social media (for spreading “fake news”), but he insisted that the Russian authorities understand that “the official statistics fall far short of reflecting reality accurately.”

Earlier in May, The New York Times and The Financial Times reported that Russia is dramatically underreporting the extent of its coronavirus outbreak, claiming that 70 percent of fatalities caused by COVID-19 are coded as deaths by other causes, according to demographer Alexey Raksha. Russia’s Foreign Ministry subsequently demanded that both newspapers issue retractions, the State Duma threatened to strip the outlets’ reporters of their Russian accreditation, and Roskomnadzor (Russia’s federal censor) announced an inquiry into the two articles. A recent investigative report by Meduza shows that Russia’s methodology for recording COVID-19 deaths allows state officials to hide the epidemic’s true mortality rate deliberately. 

Text by Alexander Baklanov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock