MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Russia continues to see a surge in coronavirus infections. Russia is second behind the U.S. in confirmed cases, and new infections are increasing by more than 10,000 a day, bringing the current national total to well over 240,000. And yet, the death rate appears to be far lower than other countries battling the outbreak - 2,200 are reported to have died from COVID-19 in Russia. From Moscow, NPR's Charles Maynes reports.
CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Being a stats guy amid a pandemic doesn't make you popular, says Aleksei Raksha, an independent demographer in Moscow.
ALEKSEI RAKSHA: I work with numbers, and numbers tell me what's going on, not people, you know. That's why people from the left and people from the right don't like me.
MAYNES: For example, government critics may not like that Raksha gives the Kremlin decent marks for handling the pandemic so far. He points to numbers that show the Kremlin's decision to seal the border with China and order people to stay at home came, if not right away, then at least in time to slow the spread of the virus. Or take the number of hospital beds and ventilators rolled out in Moscow. Raksha says they've allowed the city to handle rising case loads better than, say, New York or London.
RAKSHA: So in every big and every huge and every large city, the spike of death rate is much bigger than in Moscow.
MAYNES: But the problem comes when you look at the number of people the government says are dying. Raksha says Russian doctors diagnose the cause of death differently than their colleagues in the West.
RAKSHA: In Russian medical tradition, the main cause of death should be the cause of failure of particular organ.
MAYNES: That means someone may have the coronavirus, but technically, doctors say they died from a stopped heart, a bad kidney or pneumonia - just not COVID-19. And Raksha looks at figures coming out of Russia's regions and says the numbers from local health ministry officials just don't add up.
RAKSHA: It's also signs of manipulating the data. I don't know why. I don't know why they're doing it. But I see it. I am statistician, and I see it.
MAYNES: Raksha's research has been at the heart of media reports that suggest the authorities have been misclassifying COVID-19 deaths. He looked at current mortality figures and compared them to the average for this time of year.
RAKSHA: I think it's safe to say that you can multiply official death count from COVID by three, by the factor of three. And you will be - you'll get, more or less, true picture.
MAYNES: With Western media picking up the story, Russia's government is pushing back.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER TATYANA GOLIKOVA: (Speaking Russian).
MAYNES: At a press conference this week, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova insisted fewer Russians were dying from COVID-19 than in other countries because of smart government policies, not fake numbers.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
GOLIKOVA: (Speaking Russian).
MAYNES: "We never manipulate statistics," she says. Other officials say foreign media are carrying out a smear campaign against Russia on behalf of the U.S. and other western governments eager to distract from their own rising death tolls. Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.