The reasons why statistics from these countries do not tell the whole story – and are even misleading – can vary widely, from cover-up, objective impossibility to count, and the perverse effects of politics.

A curiously low death rate in Russia

Russia has significant figures for the epidemic – 318,000 official cases and around 3,100 deaths as of May 21 – and detection and treatment capabilities greater than those of countries like Yemen and Syria. The USSR once boasted, not without exaggeration, of having the best health system in the world.

After March and April, when reported cases remained fairly rare, mostly in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the numbers soared in May, with very active households, decimated health workers and a republic like devastated Daguestan.

At first, Vladimir Putin liked to boast of the extremely low death rate in Russia, below 1%! But some local doctors and some opponents quickly accused the authorities of concealment.

With, for example, death registers which often omitted, as a cause, the inscription of the link COVID-19. Rather, we wrote: respiratory problems, pneumonia, etc. Even if the decisive reason was indeed the appearance of the coronavirus in the bodies of the deceased.

In early May, newspaper investigations such as the Financial Times and the New York Times have shown that the actual death toll in Russia could be double or triple the official figures. We studied – as has been done elsewhere – the gap between the official COVID-19 death figures and what is called general excess mortality (by comparing the deaths in March and April 2020 with the corresponding months of 2019 or 2018 , when there was no epidemic).

Result: unlike Quebec, where the breakdown of true COVID-19 deaths have been rigorous and even relentless (there is almost no lag between the general excess mortality of this period and deaths attributable to COVID-19), the gap is large in Russia.

It was thus proved that in April 2020, in Moscow, 70% of deaths attributable to the coronavirus were not recorded in official statistics.

For the rest of the country, in the regions, this proportion would even be 80%. So we wouldn't have stamped COVID-19 than a quarter or a third of the actual total of deaths.

Political reasons

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a teleconference meeting.

President Vladimir Putin attended a meeting in mid-April on the situation regarding the spread of COVID-19 in Russia. (archives)

Photo: Getty Images / ALEXEY DRUZHININ

There can also, of course, be political reasons with a cover-up that is not innocent.

For example, Russia is a country where regional authorities – appointed and not elected – do not have strong autonomy and are highly dependent on the central government. They are therefore inclined to say what Moscow wants to hear. If poor results come from a region, the governor in question could have problems. Fear and deference to the Czar goes back a long way in this country.

Recently, after the months of March and April when Putin was triumphant, pointing out that his country had fared better than poor Europe, things changed in May.

For the past few weeks, the president has appeared gloomier. He was deprived of his triumph of the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Red Square. He spaces his appearances … and, as if by chance, now returns the ball to the regions!

Weak infrastructure and denial of the president in Brazil

Mr. Bolsonaro, who wears a mask, greets his supporters.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro salutes his supporters during a demonstration against containment on May 17, 2020 in Brasilia.

Photo: Reuters / Adriano Machado

In Brazil, it is a mixture of politics (the struggle between the presidency and the regions, between the president and his ministers) and weak infrastructure, which explains the drama.

President Jair Bolsonaro denies the magnitude and importance of the epidemic. This voluntary myopia has the effect of fueling the real epidemic. Even if we have sometimes seen him wearing a mask, the president refuses social distancing for himself, he even pays for crowd bathing.

Like Donald Trump in the United States, Bolsonaro demands an economic recovery and deconfinement express, disregarding the precautionary statements and the advice of his own ministers. Two health ministers have just resigned, one after the other.

Yet Brazil is bleeding from COVID-19, with many outbreaks (in the Amazon, in the state of Sao Paulo), of horror stories: mass graves, outdated public health care in some regions.

Frightening figures

Estimates of the magnitude of the pandemic are circulating in the Brazilian press, but these estimates must be taken with a grain of salt. According to these estimates, it would be necessary to multiply the number of cases by five, even by ten (officially, there were 292,000 cases on May 21), and the number of deaths by two or three.

As we can see: in Brazil and Russia, the official number of cases is similar – a little over 300,000 – but the death toll differs enormously: 20,000 in Brazil, compared to 3,100 in Russia.

In both cases, but for different reasons, the magnitude of the drama is underestimated. Putin is hiding, while Bolsonaro is in denial. The Brazilian case is more like that of the United States.

Confusion, destruction and lack of resources in Yemen

People are walking on a street.

Yemenis are driving a street in Aden, a port city in the south of the country, on May 17, 2020.

Photo: hooly News / NABIL HASAN

Last stop, this time in Yemen, in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, a country demolished by a five-year war. War waged, among others, by its northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia which, until April, waged a bombing campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

This country was already, before the war, very poor, with poor infrastructure. In addition, other epidemics – cholera, but also dengue, malaria and chikungunya – pre-existed the arrival of COVID-19.

For all of these and other reasons, COVID-19 is present, but there are several factors preventing it from being seen. So there is good reason to be skeptical of the official figures of 184 cases and 30 deaths found on May 21 on the Johns Hopkins University website, which is nevertheless a reference.

What prevents you from seeing reality?

First, we have very few means to test. Then there is not only one epidemic, but several that overlap and blur the tracks. Cholera, dengue fever, malaria … Hospitals have been destroyed by the sustained Saudi bombing since 2015, then stopped in early April.

This war is complex, with multiple fronts. Yemen is a politically fragmented country with a large number of actors, not just a central government facing a unified guerrilla war. This type of conflict would, for example, allow a truce. This would provide better access, better screening and the opportunity to provide better care. But the Yemeni conflict is not that.

It was in Aden, the large port city in the south, that the first official cases of COVID-19 were recorded. But at the end of the month, precisely in this city, local militiamen declared independence from the North. In the south and in the east, another war continues, with the separatists, Al-Qaeda and company.

In Yemen, death lurks everywhere. The bombings have killed, directly or indirectly, tens of thousands of people over the past five years and destroyed an infrastructure as basic as running water.

In such a context, what can the research of true COVID-19 figures for a Yemeni and her three hungry children who already have all this on their backs?

In Aden, for the only day of May 16, the hooly News, citing local authorities, identified more than 80 deaths caused by different epidemics . Mortality from disease is clearly significant. But due to the inability to test, it is unclear whether it was chikungunya, malaria or COVID-19 that killed these people.

So here is another scenario: a country demolished by war, without resources, where the general context is tragic, where the figures do not say everything and do not mean much anymore.

These three examples speak for themselves. Explanations of variances may vary. But when we read that, for the whole world, there are officially five million cases of COVID-19 and 330,000 deaths, it must be seen as a minimum, probably far below reality.