An increase in pneumonia cases in Moscow is fueling concerns regarding the accuracy and reliability of official coronavirus reports spun by the Russian government. For a while, Russia, a country with a population of 144 million, stated only 253 cases, which was significantly fewer than in other countries with much smaller populations, also suffering from COVID-19.
Such reports have cast doubts among medical professionals and ordinary Russians on the official reports voiced by Russian officials. "I've got a feeling our government is lying to us," said the chief of Russia's Doctors Alliance Professional Union, Anastasia Vasilyeva, Democratic Europe Without Borders reports.
At the same time, the Russian government claims their figures are correct. Vladimir Putin has stated Russia is now being targeted by fake reports aimed to spread panic. In January, the number of pneumonia cases in the Russian capital, which could be a result of the novel coronavirus, jumped 37 % year-on-year, says Russia's stats agency Rosstat. Moscow, with its 98 confirmed coronavirus cases, recorded 6,921 pneumonia cases in January against 5,058 in the same period last year. At the same time, Moscow's health department this month said pneumonia incidence in Jan-Feb was actually 8% and 7% lower than a year ago. The officials did not respond to an inquiry as to why their data differed so greatly. Rosstat said they were not aware of the Moscow health officials' sources.
"First of all, the idea comes to mind that this pneumonia is Covid-19," explained Dr Vasilyeva. "There seem to be no other reasons for the rise," she said.
Some of her Russian colleagues disagree. An acclaimed expert in infectious diseases, Professor Vladimir Nikoforov stated: "There is an explanation for this. The number of persons looking for medical assistance has increased because of anxiety."
Meanwhile, many Russians still remembering the Soviet-time response to and coverage of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear tragedy have much less confidence. "I don't believe the coronavirus case count," said a Moscow-based accountant Yekaterina. "Because I remember what they told us about the Chernobyl accident back in the day. It's only now that we can learn the truth about what really happened there."
Recently, Moscow authorities reported the first coronavirus death of a female patient, 79. However, shortly after the initial news piece was released, media altered their coverage, stating it was a blood clot, not COVID-19, that killed the woman. So her death didn't actually count.
A recently released EU report stated Russian government media and news agencies had launched a misinformation campaign aiming at undermining people's confidence in the European health care system and its efforts to tackle COVID-19.
The paper drawn by the EU's External Action Service, the body that researches and fights disinformation online, notes that the experts documented nearly 80 different news pieces containing false, fake, or misleading information about coronavirus, released by Russian state media, various platforms, news outlets, and authors closely affiliated with the Kremlin.
"The campaign is designed to exacerbate confusion, panic, and fear, and to prevent people from accessing reliable information about the virus and public safety provisions," the EU report says.
Among agencies and outlets spinning COVID-19 disinformation, experts note Russia Today, Sputnik, Oriental Review, and Geopolitica. They have been pushing narratives claiming that the novel coronavirus was less harmful than any regular flu, that it was developed by the U.S., or brought to Europe by migrants.
Many European pundits share the opinion that Russia has been actively exploiting the COVID-19 issue to sow panic and manipulate public opinion.
Agnieszka Legucka of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, Russian foreign broadcasters have many opportunities and resources at their disposal to conduct a disinformation campaign on coronavirus: "Since the beginning of 2020, they have also been spreading disinformation about the coronavirus with the aim of inducing distrust in public institutions and aggravating the public health crisis in the EU."
The expert believes Russian disinformation remains a tool to destroy peace and order in Europe. Therefore the EU should be prepared to withstand a long-term infowar campaign.