Calculating how many lives have been lost in the COVID-19 pandemic will be valuable for future epidemiological and policy decisions - in many cases telling the public what we should not do. A murder victim who had a positive test within 30 days of being shot was counted as a COVID-related death, and that didn't inspire confidence. 

But Americans only know about that because there some effort at transparency. Elsewhere, governments claimed whatever they wanted to claim. China, the home of SARS-CoV-2 and the pandemic that resulted, first claimed they had ended their pandemic at 4,000 deaths while citizens reported crematoriums running 24 hours per day across the country.

Assuming most countries aren't lying to avoid blame, there is still the challenge of incomplete or inadequate registration data, difficulties in determining the primary cause of death, and the arbitrary nature of indirect effects.

Unlike China, Russia reported exceptional mortality but other estimates from outside the country said Russia was exaggerating. Given what data are available, and inability to control for it across cities much less countries, an international team of researchers led by IIASA conducted the most detailed analysis on pandemic mortality in Russia to date.

They used the concept of ‘excess mortality’ that looks at the difference between the actual number of deaths and what would have been expected if there was no pandemic. Unlike other measures, excess mortality includes deaths that may have stemmed from lockdowns, restriction on movement, postponed operations, and so on, giving a much more comprehensive and reliable estimate.

The team used the latest data released from the Russian Federal State Statistics Service and calculated excess mortality for Russia and its regions for 2020 and 2021, and for 2020 also assessing mortality by age, sex, and rural-urban residence. During the two years, the researchers estimated that the pandemic has cost over one million Russian lives.

One of the study’s main findings was that different regions within the country differed greatly in mortality. In 2021, excess deaths expressed as a percentage of expected deaths at the regional level ranged from 27% to 52%, with urban regions generally faring worse. The researchers suggested that apart from population density, socio-cultural, economic and, perhaps, geographic differentials could have contributed to the differences.

In the northern Caucusus, for example, the elderly live in larger households of extended families together with their children and descendants. Such a tradition might have contributed to higher social exposure and, hence, higher losses.

The study also introduced a new measure called the Mean Remaining Life Expectancy of the Deceased, showing how many years on average those whose death was among the excess deaths lost. They found that for Russia as a whole, an average person who died due to the pandemic in 2020 would have otherwise lived on average for a further 14 years.