Unhiding the bodies

All governments like to divert attention from their mistakes.  However, this is tricky in an open democracy with a free press if those mistakes lead to tens of thousands of deaths.  In contrast, it is straightforward for an authoritarian regime to manipulate the death counts.  Nevertheless, it is hard to hide all the indirect consequences of excess deaths.  This allows resourceful researchers to uncover what even dictatorships would rather keep hidden.  In this blog we look at examples in China and Russia.

Our first example concerns the impact of covid-19 in China, which has officially only caused 84,000 deaths.  However, journalists at The Economist found data on cremations in Zhejiang, a wealthy coastal region in China.  These are plotted in Figure 1, showing a surge in cremations in the first quarter of 2023, when China relaxed its covid-19 restrictions.

Figure 1.  January-March cremations in Zhejiang, China, 2020-2023.  Source: The Economist, July 20th 2023.

Cremations in Zhejiang, China, in the first quarter of the year, 2020-2023.

Figure 1 shows that Zhejiang had around 70,000 excess cremations in Q1 2023 compared to previous years.  Based on the official covid-19 death toll of 84,000, we are being asked to believe that more than 80% of China's official covid-19 deaths took place in a province accounting for under 5% of the population.  A likelier theory is advanced by The Economist, namely that the true number of covid-19 deaths in China is around 1.6 million, i.e. about nineteen times the official figure.  Unsurprisingly, the data set was quickly removed from official websites.

Another country with suppressed covid-19 death counts is Russia, as highlighted in Kobak (2021).  However, Kobak's most recent work has been estimating something else that Vladimir Putin's regime wants to hide - the number of Russian combat deaths during his invasion of Ukraine.  As noted by Meduza (2023):

"A presidential order classifies information about casualties, and Russian police agencies enforce the executive decree by prosecuting people for revealing on social media when Russian soldiers are killed in Ukraine."

Faced with such repression of direct reporting of deaths, Meduza looked at what the Russian state reports indirectly.  One example is the number of probate cases for deaths in the 20-24 age range, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2.  Weekly probate cases in Russia for those aged 20-24.  Source: Meduza.

Weekly probate cases in Russia for deaths in 20-24 age range

Since most soldiers are young men, the spike in Figure 2 gives a lagging indicator of the combat deaths in the Russian army.  By making various assumptions, including the relationship of probate cases to total deaths, the team at Meduza reckons that Russian combat deaths amount to "around 47,000" as of July 2023.

Of course, it would be better if governments properly reported deaths, rather than the public relying on clever and innovative researchers making deductions from other data sources.  Still, it is somewhat comforting that even secretive and repressive dictatorships release data that indirectly reveal what they try to hide.


Economist magazine (2023) A clue to China's true covid-19 death toll, July 20th 2023, URL https://www.economist.com/china/2023/07/20/a-clue-to-chinas-true-covid-19-death-toll.

Kobak, D. (2021) Excess mortality reveals covid's true toll in Russia, Significance, 18(1), February 2021, pages 16–19, doi:10.1111/1740-9713.01486.

Meduza (2023) Bring out your dead, July 10th 2023, URL https://meduza.io/en/feature/2023/07/10/bring-out-your-dead.

Written by: Stephen Richards
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