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Why Russia, China, and Iran Are All Screwed by the Pandemic

Medical specialists transport a person on a stretcher outside a hospital for patients suffering from the coronavirus on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia, July 2, 2021. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

On the menu today: The U.S. national news media only tend to pay attention to countries such as Russia, China, and Iran in the context of how their actions affect Americans — hackers collecting ransomware, or when some troll in St. Petersburg starts making Facebook posts about Hillary Clinton. But these countries have their own problems, and if you think COVID-19 has inflicted great pain on Americans, wait until you see the catastrophic impact on the populations of these countries with hostile regimes.

The Pandemic Is Ravaging Russia, China, and Iran

Since the beginning of June, Russia has witnessed a shocking rise in the number of COVID-19 cases — from around 7,000 or so per day to more than 25,000 per day — and that’s with a near-open recognition that the country’s official statistics are drastically understating the real numbers. The country’s coronavirus information center says the country has suffered 141,501 deaths — while the country’s excess-fatality count since the start of the pandemic is closer to 475,000.

According to the official government statistics, Russia suffered a random and unexplained surge of deaths from pneumonia, diabetes, nervous-system diseases, and old-age deaths in 2020 that had nothing to do with COVID-19. And earlier this year, the Rossat, or Federal Statistics Service, stopped giving monthly updates on death statistics. In the official statistics, Russia’s death count ranks a distant sixth worldwide, with 22 percent of the United States’ more reliable 622,000. The excess-death number would put Russia at 76 percent of the U.S. death count.

In the official statistics, 426,000 Russians are currently infected with COVID-19, and there are some signs that the outbreak is getting so bad that even officials quoted in state-run news agencies are getting blunter about it. From the state-owned TASS, yesterday:

The COVID-19 situation in Russia is tense, and the highest infection rate in the country is currently recorded in the Northwestern Federal District, head of the Russian Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing Anna Popova said on Thursday.

“Of course, the current situation is tense. We are documenting the highest figures currently in the Northwestern Federal District, the highest in the country, followed by the Central Federal District. And several days ago, the Far Eastern Federal District joined them,” she said on the Rossiya-1 TV channel.

According to Popova, the situation in other regions is a little calmer, but “absolutely unstable.” The development of the situation will depend on people’s adherence to anti-COVID measures, she said.

About 66 percent of COVID-19 cases currently documented in Russia are tied to the Delta strain, Popova said.

All of this is occurring in a country that actually has a darn good vaccine, at least according to infection and hospitalization numbers where the vaccine has been deployed. The Economist laments that decades of dishonesty from Vladimir Putin’s regime have created a cynical, paranoid, distrustful Russian population that doesn’t believe anything it hears from the government — even when the government is accurately telling them how to protect themselves from the virus:

Whereas in Britain 78 percent of the population has received at least one jab, in Russia the proportion is only 20 percent. The difference is not the availability or the efficacy of the jab, but people’s trust in the government and its vaccines.

All of this could have been avoided. A year ago, the government decided to lift a partial lockdown (Mr. Putin called it “a holiday”), hoping to save itself money and to prop up the president’s faltering popularity after a prolonged slump in incomes. Mr. Putin’s ratings did go back up — but so did the risk of infection.

Kremlin-aligned Russian commentators, desperate to shift the blame from the government, are contending that the current outbreak is evidence of Western biological warfare against the Russian people.

COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for those who are heavy smokers and heavy drinkers, who are more likely to have other comorbidities or health problems. Hey, it’s a good thing Russia doesn’t have a lot of those, huh?

The Russian people are suffering, much worse than they needed to, because of the persistent dishonesty and denial of Putin and his regime.

Over in Beijing . . .

Meanwhile, over in China, the government insists that since the start of the pandemic in Wuhan*, the country of more than a billion people has suffered fewer cases of infection than Ghana, Finland, Montenegro, Namibia, Uzbekistan, or Estonia. China also insists that its deaths from COVID-19 are fewer than those of Costa Rica, Azerbaijan, Ireland, and North Macedonia. In fact, China contends that its 4,636 deaths are less than half the death total in the borough of Queens, N.Y.

Our World in Data does not include China in its statistics. The New York Times, in an extensive review comparing excess deaths to official statistics, did not include China. The Economist, in a similar extensive review comparing excess deaths to official statistics, did not include China.

There is a widespread recognition that China’s official statistics are nonsense; on April 14, 2020, the country “adjusted” the figures to account for more than 1,200 deaths, and the chart has remained flat since.

But The Economist did find some data hinting at the extent of the undercount in Wuhan, at least in the first three months of 2020:

An article published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on February 24th offers some clues on the extent of the underreporting. The authors, affiliated with China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, have access to all-cause mortality data from the country’s national disease-surveillance system and other, less detailed, sources. Using information from January 1st 2020 to March 31st 2020, they found that Wuhan registered 5,954 more deaths when compared with the same period in 2019. They also found that deaths from covid-19 and other pneumonia-like illnesses in the rest of Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, were higher than usual (although overall deaths in the province were not higher than in 2019). In the rest of China, meanwhile, mortality was at lower levels than a year earlier.

The authors did not respond to The Economist’s requests to share their data. However, a table in the article’s appendix allowed us to reconstruct some of their weekly figures for excess mortality and compare it with official covid-19 deaths. The data suggest that total excess deaths in Wuhan between January 1st 2020 and March 31st 2020 numbered 13,400. That is more than triple the official count, and more than double the estimate in the BMJ paper. There were no excess-death statistics for the period from April 2020 onwards.

Separately, in February of this year, Radio Free Asia reported that “data released by the civil affairs department in the central province of Hubei, where the coronavirus pandemic first emerged in December 2019, showed that around 150,000 names had ‘disappeared’ from the list of recipients in the first three months of 2020, as COVID-19 tore through the provincial capital Wuhan and surrounding areas, sparking a provincial lockdown.” This suggests that, as in Russia, at minimum, tens of thousands of COVID-19 deaths are being attributed to other causes.

Even if you’re a skeptic of the lab-leak theory, China knew it had a contagious virus and still let thousands of potentially infected people travel out of Wuhan to other cities all over the world, for weeks — 900 people in a month to New York, 2,200 to Sidney, and more than 15,000 to Bangkok. Chinese authorities’ decision to not enact a quarantine until it was far too late meant the rest of the world never stood a chance of preventing a global pandemic.

Then, by the end of April 2020, China had sent other countries 10 million defective COVID-19 tests, masks, and pieces of personal protective equipment. Throughout 2021, countries that bought China’s COVID-19 vaccines learned, to their horror, that those don’t work very well. A Brazilian study concluded that the Sinopharm vaccines were just barely more than 50 percent effective, and countries that had extensively vaccinated their populations with those vaccines started seeing sudden outbreaks. The head of China’s CDC came out and said so directly in April, and then a day later insisted he hadn’t said what he’d just said.

At every step of the way in this pandemic, the Chinese government has made the situation worse for other countries. Unsurprisingly, “unfavorable views of China are also at or near historic highs. Large majorities in most of the advanced economies surveyed have broadly negative views of China, including around three-quarters or more who say this in Japan, Sweden, Australia, South Korea and the United States. . . . There is widespread preference for stronger economic ties with the U.S. over China. . . . Few have confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs. These negative evaluations of him are at or near historic highs in most places surveyed.” A lot of China enthusiasts and idiots — forgive me for repeating myself — convinced themselves that Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy” was a masterstroke. China may be able to generate happy-talk ceremonies with other countries’ foreign ministries, but foreign populations increasingly perceive the regime in Beijing as reckless and menacing.

And as the Washington Post editorial board concluded back in December, “if China has not been truthful and transparent about the initial outbreak a year ago, can it be believed now?”

And Then There’s Iran

Iran’s official death toll, as of this morning, is about 85,000. For what it’s worth, opposition groups contend that the death toll is more than 325,000. To the extent that Iran’s official figures can be believed, they point to another bad wave coming, the country’s fifth. The country reported about 16,000 new cases Tuesday, more than 17,000 new cases Wednesday, and more than 23,000 new cases Thursday.

The regime barely hides the fact that it has banned an accurate record keeping of the pandemic’s effects; it just sentenced a journalist to three months in prison for “spreading lies, disturbing public opinion, providing a negative portrait of the clergy, and publishing the statistics of the number of positive Coronavirus cases.” (Notice that last charge.)

Our World in Data does not include Iran in its statistics.

There is good reason to worry that while Russia, China, and Iran are unlikely to ever establish a formal global alliance, their mutual interests and antipathy to the West are likely to align them and increase their cooperation against our regional interests and to undermine Western democracies.

But let’s just say there were serious costs to having close ties to China from, say, December 2019 to March 2020. Iran’s first outbreak of COVID-19 was traced back to Qom, where “China Railway Engineering Corp. is building a $2.7 billion high-speed rail line through Qom. Chinese technicians have been helping refurbish a nuclear-power plant nearby. There are also Chinese religious students studying at Qom’s seminaries.” Lots of Chinese guest workers flying into town in early 2020 meant somebody was bringing COVID-19 with them.

Then let’s observe that religious fanaticism is probably not great for minimizing the spread: “following a surge of COVID-19 cases in the holy city of Qom, dozens of videos were posted online showing pious Muslim supporters of the regime licking and kissing the walls and bars of holy shrines to show that they were not afraid of the virus. Some of the videos even showed mullahs encouraging their children to lick and kiss the shrines.”

Back in January, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned the import of U.S. and British vaccines. He did this because he thought his Russian and Chinese allies would be there to help his country. But one big problem with forming a global alliance with other deeply corrupt, paranoid, and duplicitous autocrats is that they tend to mess up basic tasks even more frequently than the idiots we have running our free-market republics. “Alireza Naji, head of the Virology Research Center and member of Covid Scientific Committee told the government Iran Daily that part of the shortage is due to lack of delivery from Chinese and Russian companies that produce Sinopharm and Sputnik vaccines. Naji accused these companies of not honoring their commitments.”

(Eli Lake is right that offering some of America’s extra COVID-19 vaccines to Iran would make good strategic sense, although it is likely that the regime would turn down the offer.)

But don’t worry, Iranians, new shipments of those oh-so-effective Chinese vaccines are coming.

The United States of America has problems. We’re not completely out of the woods yet. Our daily rate of new cases is starting to creep up again. We have pockets of our population who refuse to get vaccinated, who don’t believe any warnings about the virus, but choose to believe any and all claims of potential danger from the vaccine. Those of us who are vaccinated may need a booster in the not-too-distant future. As long as this virus is floating out there, around the world, there is a chance it will mutate in a way that makes it more resistant to the current vaccines. (Then again, it may well gradually mutate into forms that make it less harmful, less virulent, and possibly less contagious, as the influenza virus did after 1919.

But I would take the problems of free societies over the problems of authoritarian societies any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Authoritarian regimes can kill you — even if you’re living in a free society.

*When I write, “started in Wuhan,” I think you know which specific buildings I’m talking about.

ADDENDUM: Hey, who wants to pay a half million dollars to Hunter Biden for one of his paintings? Sounds like fair market value, right? Nobody would ever buy his finger-paintings for that sum to buy a connection to his father, would they?

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