Russia suffers deadliest September since World War II with COVID untamed

Jake Rudnitsky and Evgenia Pismennaya

Russia suffered its deadliest September since World War II, according to figures published Friday, even before the peak of its current wave of the COVID-19 pandemic forced authorities to order non-working days for the first week of November.

There were 44,265 deaths associated with the virus last month, bringing the pandemic’s total to nearly half a million, according to Federal Statistics Service data published late Friday. That contributed to the highest number of September fatalities since the war, said Alexei Raksha, a demographer who left the agency last year after a dispute over its coronavirus numbers.

The situation is poised to get worse after record numbers of cases in recent weeks, leading President Vladimir Putin to declare days off nationwide. Widespread distrust of the government has hindered attempts to get people to use locally developed vaccines.

Medical workers carry a patient suspected of having coronavirus on a stretcher at a hospital for COVID-19 patients in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, Oct. 29, 2021.

“If the authorities’ approach to fighting COVID-19 doesn’t change radically, we can expect new waves of infections,” Raksha said. “The lockdown should be real, strict and and several weeks, like in Latvia, and not ‘non-working days’ at the expense of employers.”

Russia’s average life expectancy has fallen by five years in the last 18 months, to about 69, he estimates.

The latest COVID surge has overloaded hospitals and made several regions, including Moscow, order tougher lockdowns.

The crisis hasn’t significantly boosted demand for vaccines, despite widespread availability of a locally-developed COVID-19 inoculation that has been shown to be effective against the virus. Just 47% of Russians have immunity from a vaccine or recovering from the illness, according to data from the government’s coronavirus task force.

Among unvaccinated people, 34% of those who were confident in the government said they would get a vaccine if offered, compared with 19% of those who didn’t, according to a Gallup poll published Thursday. Less than half the people queried were confident in their leadership.

“We are particularly worried about the growing death rates from COVID-19,” Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova told Putin at a government meeting last week. “We are seeing a gradual increase in the vaccination rates, but it is still insufficient.”

The increasing sense of alarm among officials has not reached the masses. Many Russians continue to flout mask mandates, and Golikova said Friday she was particularly concerned about people traveling to other regions for vacations during the non-working days, according to Tass.

The September data on deaths are nearly twice the COVID-19 task force’s daily reports. But they do not fully account for the higher number of fatalities compared to the same month in 2019. Officials say the excess deaths are linked to the pandemic.

In September, the authorities avoided unpopular moves before that month’s parliamentary elections that saw Putin’s party retain its constitutional majority. Instead, schools opened as usual on Sept. 1 and life continued largely unburdened by restrictions.

Raksha, the demographer, said he expects there will be nearly 100,000 excess deaths in October and that fatalities during the current wave will peak in November.

“The non-working days may slightly speed up the decline,” Raksha said. “The saddest thing is that they were announced about a month and a half too late.”