How to lie with statistics or the curious case of Russian COVID19 mortality figures

I was initially going to ignore the brouhaha around FT and NYT publishing figures which differ from the Russian official ones for mortality, but at the end I could not resist. It just could not miss such a classic F... Again in investigative journalism.

The Breaking News

On the 11th of May 2020, FT, NYT and Novaya Gazeta published a joint investigation which claims that Russian COVID19 mortality figures may be up to 70% higher than the officially stated ones. Novaya Gazeta article had to be withdrawn based on a court order for containing misinformation and republished with amendments.

What is the gist of the investigation:

  1. They have taken St Petersburg data on out-of hospital pneumonia deaths and have claimed that a spike in it is caused entirely by COVID19.
  2. They have extrapolated the data from St Petersburg to be valid for the entire country.
  3. They claim that the Russians are concealing 70%+ extra-hospital mortality

The Republished Article in Novaya Gazeta

Novaya has now republished the article and there is a glaring difference between its article and the FT and NYT work.

There is a missing interview in NYT and FT which appears ONLY in the amended version of the research in Novaya:

It is the interview with one of the St Petersburg pulmonologists (a professor in one of their teaching hospitals) which notes that the spike in pneumonia diagnosis is matched by a decrease in the diagnosis of bronchitis. As a result of COVID19 everyone with a chest complaint is immediately shoved into a CT if the city has one. CT finds a significant (but not yet statistically evaluated) amount of pneumonias which were going misdiagnosed as bronchitis in the previous years based on minimal X-Ray (and sometimes not even that).

That's Not All Folks

Post COVID19 pneumonias are a fact. It damages lungs even if you have a relatively mild form and there are multiple confirmations for that. In fact, there is evidence of damage even in people who have had without symptoms. As a result, the patient should become highly susceptible to pneumonia for a period of time. This has not been evaluated statistically yet, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to back it up.

Example of anecdotal evidence - the wife of one of my colleagues (in USA) had COVID19 a month ago in late March/early April. She had a new bout of shortness of breath in early May. Diagnosis - pneumonia. She sat with 4 more cases in the queue at the local hospital emergency department and the doctor told her that they have a second wave of cases - all come in with chest complains and/or shortness of breath, though instead of high fever it is usually dull (~ 37.5C). Most end up with pneumonia diagnosis and none test COVID19 positive on a PCR test. A lot (but not all) had it several weeks ago and tested positive at that time.

We do not attribute all of these deaths to COVID19. We probably should (though we can't without a reliable antibody test). If we want Russia to do it, we should do it too. That means the total COVID19 numbers become on par or beat the Spanish flu which is truly horrifying.

We should also add kidney, pancreas, cardiovascular, etc here because all of these are damaged by the citokine storm which the root cause of COVID19 organ damage. COVID19 survivors are pretty much guaranteed to be more susceptible to secondary infections hitting these for at least a year after that (if not more).

Further to this, if the delayed mortality is indeed anywhere near the 70% observed in Russia, this a front page news item. It should have been re-checked versus our stats and reported as such instead of being (ab)used to push a pre-baked narrative.

And That is Still Not All Folks.

Russian COVID19 pandemic handling is regionalized, same as USA. The actual measures, resources, etc are determined by the regional governor.

They are all baited by a potential carrot - one of them is likely to become Vlad's replacement. At the same time, they also have to look back. At the beginning of the pandemic, when he explicitly reminded them that they are in control, he also reminded them that they are responsible and he will use corporate manslaughter chargers against any one of them who will cause avoidable deaths. He was also quite explicit that he means it mentioning the exact maximum terms 7 years hard labour in public.

Russia is a kleptocracy. While nowhere near as bad as it was in the 1990es, the ruling caste in the regions is still connected at the hip with organized crime. It is impossible for a governor of a large and traditionally crime infested city like St Petersburg not to take a side in a mob war at least once. If, he after that ends up in a camp somewhere in Siberia, his life expectancy is one night - he will not wake up in the morning. The mob which was on the other side in any conflicts he took part will make sure of it.

So, the stick which Putin waved at that public conference call in April is as big as it gets and then some.

St Petersburg is one of the 3 or 4 regions which as of 15 of May are failing to control the pandemic. That is a reality - you can see its numbers and the curve on the rather excellent map by Yandex which has all of the world and all of Russia Regions. If you zoom on a region on the map it will give you the actual infection, death, etc curves and the only one which is going exponential as of 15th of May is St Petersburg. Everyone else has better control and some places like Moscow are already on the plateau if not on the way down.

Last, but not least, St Petersburg is Putin's home city. It is on his special watch list. He till this day keeps an eye on it.

So when the time comes for a scapegoat, St Petersburg's governor Mr Beglov is first in line for the job position. Did this tempt him to twiddle the numbers?

Maybe. I do not think so. Just have one look at him.

He is a muppet. He has all the local military resources and can be issued a biohazard suit same as the one Vlad used during his visit to the COVID19 ward.

So what does he do? He shows up in a hodgepodge of equipment from a DIY store. It is not the first time he has demonstrated to be a muppet too. The handling of the protests after the pension reform in the summer of 2019, the handling of environmental issues - you name it.

So frankly, he is too incompetent to twiddle the numbers in such a fine manner as alleged by NYT and FT.

The F Agains (lots of them this time):

  1. Extrapolating to a whole country what is (mis)handled regionally
  2. Removing interviews which do not fit the narrative from the article(s) final version(s) for publishing.
  3. Ignoring for investigative purposes facts that do not fit the narrative - that we are likely to be facing a post-COVID19 second pneumonia spike in the disease survivors (even the ones which had it asymptomatically).
  4. Taking an obvious statistical outlier (see the map and numbers for comparison to other regions) and extrapolating it to an entire country.