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Ashes to ashes Crematorium records suggest that COVID-19 deaths in St. Petersburg were twice was officials reported

Source: Meduza
Anatoly Maltsev / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Amid suspicion and concern that Russian state officials are underreporting the true extent of the coronavirus pandemic, journalists and health experts have sought out various means to track COVID-19’s spread and damage. In St. Petersburg, reporters for the website Fontanka have discovered that crematorium archives suggest a massive glut of deaths this summer that went missing from the city’s official statistics.

If you die in St. Petersburg after testing positive for COVID-19, your options are limited to cremation or burial in a zinc coffin at specially designated areas in two cemeteries outside the city. You don’t get a traditional funeral. According to a new investigative report by the website Fontanka, St. Petersburg is burying far more COVID-19 patients than the number of people it officially says are dying from the disease.

In late May, local officials formally started allowing families to bury COVID-19 patients in any cemetery, but Fontanka’s reporters found that the new policy exists only on paper. In reality, relatives are stuck with the same two choices: the furnace or a hole in the ground at designated cemeteries. 

The outlet obtained access to internal records at the city’s crematorium on Shafirovskiy Prospekt, which show that 5,868 people who died after testing positive for coronavirus were cremated between April 14 and October 27. According to St. Petersburg’s coronavirus task force, only 3,674 COVID-19 patients died during this period — a difference of 2,194 cases. 

Based on the crematorium’s records, the pandemic spiked in St. Petersburg in June, when 1,600 COVID-19 patients were cremated. City officials reported only 969 deaths caused by the coronavirus in that month, while Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service cited 1,207 deaths. (Rosstat’s numbers are higher because the agency includes the deaths of patients where COVID-19 was an “important contributing factor” but not necessarily the main cause.)

Since July, however, the number of cremations in St. Petersburg has plummeted and started to dovetail more closely with the official statistics. Between October 1 and 27, for example, the crematorium received the bodies of 622 people who tested positive for COVID-19, while the city recorded the deaths of 702 coronavirus patients. 

Fontanka acknowledges that people can test positive for COVID-19 and die from unrelated causes, but the news outlet argues that the dramatic disparity between the crematorium’s COVID-positive caseload and the officially reported fatalities among coronavirus patients strongly suggests underestimations by city officials.

COVID-19’s official mortality rate in St. Petersburg isn’t the only statistic that’s drawn criticism in recent weeks. Meduza recently highlighted anomalous data on recoveries and new coronavirus cases. Almost immediately after Meduza’s report, the strange trend in St. Petersburg’s coronavirus data abruptly ended.

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