Not coronavirus: what actually caused abnormal mortality in Moscow

(ORDO NEWS) — Novaya Gazeta drew attention to the fact that in the statistics of the capital – the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in Russia – in April 2020, an abnormal surge in deaths was seen. It is several times higher than the official figures of deaths from Covid-19. Are the authorities hiding again? Naked Science took a closer look at the situation and found that it was a completely different factor, not related to the new disease. We talk about what we are talking about.

It all started with the article “Unrecorded. Real mortality from Covid-2019 in Moscow is almost three times higher than official figures. ” In it, Novaya Gazeta complied with all the laws of the genre: attracted statistics, talked with experts. More precisely, with those whom she called such.

Say, quoted by the publication as an expert, Boris Ovchinnikov works for Data Insight, an e-commerce company , not an epidemiology. Associate Professor of RANEPA Tatyana Mikhailova, also interviewed by Novaya Gazeta, is an economist.

Then a similar publication appeared in Medusa. She attracted anonymous doctors as experts, whose names the publication does not disclose.

Industry experts with a truly balanced opinion are extremely reluctant to communicate with journalists on sensitive topics. They understand that you can’t analyze difficult questions instantly, so they try to express their opinion only after understanding everything. Needless to say, when they finally do this, the topic will not be interesting to reporters in principle: the train of its information appeal will long be gone.

Therefore, our media often appeal to those who are less versed in the topic, but more inclined to talk to them. Sometimes among such individuals come across carriers of frankly strange opinions. The same expert in 2009 predicts that Ukrainian tanks in the war with Russia will take Moscow in four weeks – and then, when the harsh reality shows a little different, it wonders if Russia will occupy the European countries of NATO. What she can do is he does not even doubt.

Do not think that the theme of coronavirus is free from this disease, which scourges our entire press. Even the virologist and Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier recently expressed absurd and contrary to established scientific facts opinions about the current epidemic. How to understand the situation without falling under the influence of experts from another field of science attracted by the press? Or such as the same Montagnier, who became interested in pseudoscience.

The simplest method not to follow the lines of non-problematic experts is this: you need to turn not to opinions, but to more reliable things. For example, figures and facts. Let’s see how it is with them.

So, Novaya Gazeta reports: in April 2020, 11,846 people died in Moscow – 19% more than the average in recent years.

“At least 1,855 more people died than usual. At the same time, according to official statistics, over the past month, 658 people became victims of Covid-19 in the city. Experts say that the mortality rate from coronavirus in Russia looks implausible, ”the publication inexorably outlines.

Medusa adds the thoughts of anonymous doctors with the following argument: “If only one [patient] dies, then there must be hundreds across the country.”

Expert demographer Daria Khalturina added to this thesis: “Do you understand that we can’t have a mortality rate six times lower than everyone else? But we do not think that in Russia there is any special genetic splendor? Judging by the mass deaths of medical workers, Moscow now is “new Wuhan,” and the overall mortality should already be decent enough.”

The theses of “New” and “Medusa” look logical, but, alas, totally wrong.

Yes, the excess April mortality in the capital is more than 1800 people, and officially there died several times less from a coronavirus. Therefore, it may seem that “the authorities are again hiding”, many times lowering the real mortality from a new disease.

However, regular readers of Naked Science – especially those living in Moscow – have already guessed where the weak spot is in these discussions. We have repeatedly quoted the scientific consensus: “Cold is likely to remain the most important environmental factor leading to the death of people …” Any Muscovite who looked out into the streets this April could notice: he was not too warm.

Let us briefly recall: when a person falls in temperature, the viscosity of the blood increases, as well as the concentration of platelets in it. There is the very picture that can be seen with very severe stress. The only difference is that you can avoid stress, but with the cold it’s more difficult.

What does this mean in practice? For example, in Japan (Osaka) during cold periods (below +18 ° C), the frequency of heart failure in a population younger than 74 years falls by 11% for every 5 ° C of temperature increase. Those who are older than 74 – immediately by 16%.

It seems that in Japan there is heating and even warm clothes – but nature is difficult to deceive. When you go outside, your face and airways still come in contact with the cold outside air, so people’s hearts inevitably stop more often when the street is colder than a certain temperature.

Therefore, traditionally peak mortality in almost any non-equatorial country occurs precisely during the cold months. Moreover, such a picture is not only in cold Russia, but also in warm Spain or frankly hot Bangladesh. And the point here is not the flu at all: in Russia, in the cold months, it kills a hundred times less than cardiovascular diseases.

If you live in a warm country, then the stress and growth of heart attacks and strokes in your population will be already at plus 15-18, and if it is frankly cold – starting with temperatures slightly lower. Only those living on the equator can completely avoid excessive cold mortality – like the first Homo, our distant ancestors.

Therefore, in order to understand whether mortality was high in April 2020 or not, it is first necessary to analyze the cold – “the most important environmental factor leading to death”. Any other attempt at analysis would be unscientific because it would simply ignore the scientific consensus on mortality.

Average temperature: the most important factor in any April mortality in Russia

According to statistics, in April 2019, 10,005 people died in the capital. Recall this April, 11,846, an increase of 18.4%.

But if we look at the weather reports, we will find: April 2019 in Moscow showed an average monthly temperature of 8.1 °. The norm for the April capital is 6.7 °, that is, last year’s April is 1.4 ° warmer than normal.

But April 2020 forced the press to write : “There hasn’t been such a cold April in Moscow for 15 years!” And the truth: “The average temperature in the capital was almost 2 ° below the climatic norm. At the same time, the minimum temperature of April, observed on the 1st of day, was minus 7.6 ° and turned out to be lower than the minimum of December 2019 and January 2020! The warmest day of the month was April 9, when the air warmed up to plus 15.9 °, and the maximum of this month has not been so low since 2006. ”

Conclusion: this April is on average 3.5 ° C colder than April 2019. This means that mortality this month should be significantly higher. Moreover: due to the abnormal cold, April-2020 should take much more lives of Muscovites than any of the last April.

And do not think that the average temperature difference of 3.5 ° C is small. For reference: the average annual temperature of Tula is exactly 3.5 ° C higher than in Kotlas, and Kotlas, as you know, is located in the Arkhangelsk region. The average temperature determines the weather and the climate is much more reliable than the peak temperature.

The Reaper Effect: A Second Factor to Consider When Parsing April Mortality

How can we test our hypothesis that the main reason for the abnormal mortality of April 2020 is unusually low temperatures? The first way is simple: compare the warmth of past April and the number of deaths in them. April 2018 was 1.1 ° C warmer than normal (0.3 ° C colder than 2019) – and then 10 886 people died, 8.6% more than in 2019.

It seems that the rule “the warmer, the fewer deaths” is respected. But in 2017, something was wrong with him: April is 1.4 ° C colder than normal, and mortality is suddenly much lower than in 2018. What’s the matter?

Although cold is the most powerful factor in environmental mortality, it is not the only one. Even at a constant temperature, the air pressure above us regularly drops, and then rises. The reason is mainly because air containing more water vapor is lighter than the one in which there is less. Therefore, moist air presses us weaker than dry. When your blood pressure monitor shows, as they say, “120 by 80” are numbers that are “plus” with atmospheric pressure, normally close to 760 millimeters of mercury.

If you are immediately placed in a vacuum (if possible, avoid such experiments: you may lose consciousness), then you will have 760 pressure plus the pressure of your own (“880 by 840”). If the atmospheric pressure on the street drops from 750 to 700 millimeters of mercury, then the “spherical in vacuum” pressure inside you will drop by the same 50 millimeters, which is a lot. Of course, everything will change quickly, smoothly (and without problems inside), only if everything is in order with your cardiovascular system.

Why, in fact, did we recall high school? But here’s what: in moist air, the pressure is lower than in dry air at the same temperatures, which means that blood viscosity automatically goes down. The lower the blood viscosity, the lower the risk of acute problems with blood vessels and the heart.

The same Japanese studies on heart failure in Osaka revealed: with an increase in atmospheric pressure of 10 hectopascals (about 1%) and a temperature below 18 ° C, the chances of heart failure in those older than 74 years increase by 6%. Although those who are younger, this problem practically does not concern, there are many elderly people in modern populations – and many of them in Moscow.

That is, yes, although a serious decrease in atmospheric pressure can be felt painlessly, at the same time, a person with reduced air pressure is less likely to encounter critical, acute problems with blood vessels and heart.

However, there is a problem: we cannot explain the low mortality of April 2017 by pressure. After all, the average atmospheric pressure then practically did not differ from it in 2018. The real reason that the temperature of a month alone does not determine mortality in it can lie not only in atmospheric pressure, but also in the so-called reaper effect.

Let us explain its essence using an example. January 2017 in Moscow was quite tough – 1.3 ° C colder than normal January, and without that very cold month of the year. Then 11,858 people died – significantly more than in any other month of 2017. As a result, many people who were on the verge of death due to problems with their heart and blood vessels died in January 2017 and could no longer do so in the next few months.

The “Reaper Effect” can act not only on a scale of several months, but also in the context of the year. From the practice of Great Britain in recent years, it is known that the number of excess winter deaths can exceed 50 thousand in one year, and fall below 20 thousand in another, giving a multiple difference.

This happens for the same reason: those who died in the harsh winter can no longer die the next. From British history of the second half of the 20th century, when several harsh winters still happened there, it is known that the first harsh winter among the few killed most of all.

The abnormal mortality of April 2020 in Moscow is to some extent also the result of the “reaper effect”. Only not direct, but the opposite. The fact is that this winter was extremely mild, much warmer than the climatic norm.

As a result, in January-March 2020, 31,041 people died in the capital in 91 days, or 341.1 per day. But in the first three months of 2019, 31,338 people died, or 348.2 per day. That is, in the first quarter of this year, the average daily mortality in Moscow fell by 2% compared to the past.

The same phenomenon was observed throughout the country as a whole. In January-March 2020, only 460 thousand people died in all of Russia, and 478 thousand died during the same period last year. That is, the nationwide mortality rate for the three winter months of this year was 3.8% lower than last year. The difference seems to be small, but that means 18 thousand less deaths. Consequently, the warm first quarter of this year saved about as many people as they die in road accidents for the whole year.

To summarize: mortality this April was 18% higher than in April last year, and here the “New” law. But the reason is not the mythical understatement of deaths from coronavirus, but the fact that the winter of 2020 was very warm – and many cores that would normally die in December-February survived it. But April 2020 was rather cold: “the minimum temperature of April, observed on the 1st of the day, was minus 7.6 ° and was below the minimum of December 2019 and January 2020!”

The “uncompressed lives” that the mild winter spared were largely “squeezed” by the April temperature minima, which fell below the minimum December and January of this winter. This is the reason for the abnormal peak in April mortality.

By the way, similar events – unexpected “peaks” of cold in the spring months after a mild winter – control mortality throughout Russia. Take 2018 (the gray line in the chart above). An extremely rare event happened in it: the peak of mortality among Russians did not fall in January, as usual, but in March.

Why? Let’s open the Roshydromet guide for that year: “Winter 2017/18. The average anomaly in Russia is + 2.50 ° С. Spring. The average anomaly in the Russian Federation is + 0.81 ° С. In March, the average anomaly in the Russian Federation is -0.49 ° С ”. Winter, much milder than the norm, spared many cores, but March, which was colder than the norm, did not spare anyone, which is easy to see on the chart.

How can we test our hypothesis that April 2020 is the result of core deaths from colds atypical for this month? Pretty simple. If it is true, then after the breakdown of Moscow mortality is published for reasons it will turn out that the excess of mortality this April was mainly due to cardiovascular diseases – and not to infectious diseases (Covid-19) or common pneumonia. Let us test the cold hypothesis of the April surge in mortality with practice.

According to statistics from the Moscow City Health Administration, in April 2020, 1841 more people died in the capital than in April 2019. We designate these cases as “an abnormal April growth.” What does it consist of, what types of deaths? It turns out that death from “diseases of the circulatory system” (heart and blood vessels) accounts for 1165 cases of growth – or 63.2%. It turns out that our thesis “the excess mortality of this April was mainly due to cardiovascular diseases” is confirmed by the facts.

Of course, 63.2% is far from 100%. 354 deaths from an abnormal April increase – or 19.2% of this increase – occurred in the coronavirus. Another 285 (approximately 15.5%) belong to the same coronavirus, but before it is allocated into a separate group of causes of death. Another 6.7% of the abnormal growth was caused by respiratory diseases (which includes coronavirus pneumonia). In general, there is nothing unusual in the increase in the frequency of ordinary pneumonia during cold weather: this happens all the time, every year, the peak of ordinary pneumonia always falls on the cold season.

But even leaving pneumonia aside and focusing only on the outburst of “cold” heart attacks and strokes, we must say: in April 2020, a new disease in Moscow increased mortality much weaker than cold.

Why “Novaya Gazeta” and “Medusa” could not notice the largest mortality factor – the cold

The question arises. Statistics on which the growth of mortality of Muscovites in April 2020 caused heart attacks and strokes (rather than coronavirus or pneumonia) is available to everyone. The idea that cold provokes heart attacks and strokes in people is also accessible to everyone – this is confirmed by any reader of Naked Science, since we write about this periodically. Finally, the fact that April 2020 was uncharacteristically cold in Moscow is known to any of its inhabitants.

Why, then, did the journalists of Novaya and Meduza not connect these three extremely simple thoughts and did not reach, without our help, a rather obvious conclusion? To the fact that the abnormal mortality of April 2020 in the capital is the result of atypically cold weather, causing a surge in cardiac arrest?

The simplest answer to this question is as follows. The world is complex: to understand it correctly, you often need to juxtapose up to three thoughts at a time. The press does not have the time or any material incentives to go into such difficulties. But she accurately feels the “hype nerve.” She understands that to reveal a multiple “understatement” of mortality from coronavirus means to ensure that her text is “dispersed.”

And indeed it is. The ideas of “New” and “Medusa”, contradicting the known scientific data on cold mortality, instantly provoked a reaction in the West. Bloomberg was in such a hurry to react that he made it an article entitled “Experts want to know why the coronavirus did not kill more Russians.” A diplomatic scandal broke out: the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, was indignant at such a headline. Senator Aleksey Pushkov even for some reason spoke out on this subject: “That could be said in Nazi Germany.”

We categorically disagree with such estimates. Recall: June 24, 1941 in the pages of the New York Times, the future US President Harry Truman said :

“If we see that Germany is winning the war, we should help Russia, if there is Russia, we should help Germany, thus letting them kill each other as much as possible …”

This shows that interest in the question of why more Russians did not die could be expressed not only in Nazi Germany, but also in the Roosevelt USA. For the United States, this topic is a sustainable cultural trend, the disappearance of which can hardly be expected in the foreseeable future.

That’s just nothing to resent here. On the contrary, we must rejoice. Think for a second: in 1941, in the American press, a local politician expressed interest in the deaths of as many Russians as possible. Today, American experts are only interested in why the Russians did not die anymore.

No one, unlike Truman in 1941, even thought of proposing concrete steps in order to increase the death toll. As we can see, US politicians have rapidly — in just 79 years — softened their stance on us from a direct interest in the Russian genocide to a restrained interest of experts in matters of too low a Russian mortality rate. Is this not progress?

Therefore, the accusations of Zakharova and Pushkov seem unreasonably harsh and far-fetched. Attitudes toward Russians are part of the national culture of the United States, as sacrifices of people are part of the modern culture of some African countries . We may not like a foreign culture, but this is not a reason to unreasonably compare it with Nazi Germany.

So, the reasons for which the “New” and “Medusa” published articles contradicting the facts are clear. Yes, they saw an understatement of mortality from coronavirus where it was just a record cold April.

But they did this not because they wanted to deceive someone, but only because they wanted to create resonant material that would increase the citation of these publications and their audience. In the business culture of the media, this is as important as human sacrifice in the culture of certain sections of the population of Uganda and Liberia. Journalists cannot be blamed for doing what is considered important in their cultural environment, right?

Necessary reservation. The fact that the authorities do not hide again – just like in March 2020, when the media also attributed to them falsification of coronavirus data in Russia – does not mean that they respond to what is happening quite adequately. We have already said many times: quarantine measures in Russia were not fully implemented, so the scope of the epidemic here is already very large (second place in the world).

The numbers of people who died from a new disease in April are small only because a considerable time passes from the disease to death. In the coming weeks, the death toll from Covid-19 will inevitably exceed five thousand, and then, inevitably, ten thousand.

That is why the demographer Daria Khalturina, saying to Medusa, is wrong: “Do you understand that we can’t have a mortality rate six times lower than everyone else? But we don’t think that in Russia there is any special genetic splendor?”

The world already had a precedent of mortality six times lower than that of other countries: at the end of March 2020 in Germany it was only 0.4% , and in Italy, for example, 9.5% . The Western press has released a ton of material about why Germany has such wonderful healthcare. A month and a half passed – and mortality in Germany grew 12 times, to a world level.

What Khalturin is right about is that there is no “genetic splendor” in Russia. It is difficult to explain how a demographic scientist can comment on the demographic situation of an epidemic without taking into account the same German precedent.

Russian mortality from coronavirus will certainly go up, as it went up in Germany. Consequently, far more of our fellow citizens will die from it than in the Afghan war. This, of course, is about a great tragedy, although so far it is mainly only a future one.

But even despite the fact that the Russian authorities have again shown themselves to be organizationally sharply inferior to the Chinese, we do not believe that the media can ascribe to them even falsification of mortality. If someone does not shine with abilities, this does not mean that one must also hang someone else’s fault on him. And even more so – the vagaries of the weather.

Upd. Some readers have questions about our explanation for the abnormal Moscow mortality in April 2020. Criticism is based on a comparison with St. Petersburg, where, like in Moscow in 2020, it had record-high winters and very cold April. Despite this, mortality in April 2020 there is only 1.8 percent higher than in the warm April of 2019.

For all the formal logic of such criticism, she overlooks an important fact. “Cold” April 2020 in St. Petersburg had an average temperature of only 0.9 ° C cooler than the local climatic norm. The lowest temperature in April was only minus 1.4 ° C. On the contrary, in Moscow in the same month the average temperature was 1.9 ° C lower than the local April norm. 0.9 and 1.9 are markedly different figures: if in St. Petersburg the influence of the sea softened the cold of April, then there is no sea in the capital – and there is nothing to soften.

Even more significant is the difference in the April weather in St. Petersburg and in Moscow on the example of “peaks of cold”. In North capital lowest temperature in April was minus 1,4 ° C, and in the southern – minus 7.6 ° C . It is easy to see that minus 1.4 and 7.6 are very different.

So, it is true that in St. Petersburg in April 2020 there was no sharp rise in mortality compared to April last year: instead of 18%, mortality here increased by only 1.8%. However, the cold weather of local April was radically weaker than the Moscow ones in the same month – not lower than minus 1.4 ° C against minus 7.6 ° C in Moscow. In other words, the situation in St. Petersburg does not refute the Moscow situation – it only reinforces the conclusions on it.


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