MOSCOW – Russia's Foreign Ministry has criticized the Financial Times and The New York Times after they reported that Russia's coronavirus death toll could be much higher than government officials are saying.
The articles said that they were based on a spike in total mortality rates reported by officials in Moscow, who said the capital registered about 1,800 deaths more in April 2020 than the monthly average.
The New York Times reported that total is far higher than the official COVID-19 death count of 642, which the newspaper said was an indication of significant underreporting by the authorities. It quoted Tatiana N. Mikhailova, a senior researcher at the Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Moscow, as saying that the number who died from the virus is "possibly almost three times higher than the official toll.”
The Financial Times pointed to a similar surge in deaths reported by authorities in St. Petersburg, and it concluded that nationwide, Russia could have 70% more coronavirus deaths than it reports.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova complained about what she called “disinformation” by the two newspapers and said letters demanding a retraction would be passed on to both on Thursday.
Danielle Ha, vice president for communications for The New York Times, told Russian news agencies the report was accurate because it was based on data released by an official state agency.
The Financial Times didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
Russia has reported over 250,000 coronavirus cases on Thursday and 2,305 deaths. The comparatively low death toll raised questions in the West, with some critics suggesting it could be much higher.
The New York Times reported that Russia’s mortality rate of only about 13 deaths per million was far below the world average of 36.
Russian health officials insisted that the relatively low coronavirus death toll is due to its instituting a quick ban on travel from neighboring China earlier this year, an early introduction of restrictions and tracing of the infected contacts. U.S. President Donald Trump has cited a similar travel ban for his efforts to combat the virus.
Russian officials also have said the scope of testing has been significantly increased in recent weeks, allowing for officials to spot the infections quickly and prevent patients from developing life-threatening complications.
Following the Foreign Ministry statement, lawmaker Vasily Piskaryov demanded that reporters from the newspapers be stripped of their accreditation, effectively banning them from working in the country.
Zakharova said measures against the media organizations “will depend on whether they run the retraction.”
Last month, Russian lawmakers approved fines of up to $25,000 and prison terms of up to five years for anyone who spreads what is deemed to be false information during the outbreak. Under the measure, media outlets could be fined up to $127,000 for disseminating disinformation about the virus.
On Wednesday, Moscow's health department rejected the allegations of undercounting coronavirus deaths. Officials said autopsies are being conducted in all suspected coronavirus deaths.
“That's why post-mortem diagnoses in Moscow and causes of death, in the end, are exceedingly accurate, and the mortality data absolutely transparent," the statement said.
More than 60% of deaths of people with coronavirus in Moscow were ascribed to other causes, such as cardiovascular ailments, cancer, diseases involving organ failures and other illnesses, according to the statement.
Guidelines on reporting coronavirus deaths, issued by the World Health Organization in mid-April, state that “deaths due to COVID-19” should be considered as such “unless there is a clear alternative cause of death that cannot be related to COVID disease.”