Journalists in Russia's regions catalogue the ‘unseen victims’ of COVID-19

“We find those who are indirectly suffering due to the coronavirus. We trace the signals about the problem. We track the trends,” reads the landing page of

Some die of heart attacks, as there were no ambulances available to take them to hospital. Others couldn't get medicine for serious conditions or organ transplants in time. Then there are those who lose their job, income, and savings, some by falling prey to fraudsters who promise protective equipment or miracle cures in exchange for cash.

These are Russia's “unseen” COVID-19 victims — those who have suffered seriously or even perished due to the broader consequences of the pandemic. According to the Johns Hopkins University map, there have been to date over 290,000 COVID-19 cases in Russia, including 2,722 deaths. In recent weeks, coronavirus cases have been rising by between 8,000 and 11,000 on a daily basis.

Given the numbers of the “visible” victims, Russia's journalists have their work cut out for them — the incidents mentioned above are not “unseen” for no reason. They are real tragedies, all of which took place in various Russian regions since April 2020. That month, a team of Russian journalists and media workers founded, a portal dedicated to recording the less obvious hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The project does not record COVID-19 infections unless they were themselves caused by wider “unseen” social and economic consequences of the pandemic, or by a clear case of another's negligence influenced by these factors.

Importantly, does not record cases in Russia's largest cities of Moscow and St Petersburg and their hinterlands. Its team of 20 journalists based across Russia, many of them working for regional publications, closely monitor local newspapers and social media networks for evidence of “unseen” cases. The site also includes a contact form where citizens can provide their own information about an “unseen victim.”

The project's founders hope that their data will assist journalists in their reporting, activists in raising awareness of underreported issues, and state officials and NGOs alike in developing an effective response to the pandemic.

The data are ranked into five colour-coded classes: yellow (for problems for which there are five or less recorded instances), orange (five or more), red (ten or more), crimson (100 or more), and black. The last and most extreme category is reserved for incidents which, regardless of number, have irreversible and serious consequences — these include deaths related to the coronavirus pandemic but not caused by the infection itself, and the complete collapse or bankruptcy of businesses. The latter can have serious social consequences, such as alcoholism, domestic violence, homelessness, and even suicide.

It must be added that as all incidents recorded are based on public data, many of these same social problems are underreported, and therefore doubly “unseen”. Domestic violence, for instance, stays in the yellow zone, although due to the nature of the problem the public never hears about many cases, assuming that victims speak out at all.

Two examples of “black zone” cases are as follows. One concerns a tragic death in Bashkortostan, a region in the Ural mountains:

Студент из Стерлитамака Ранэль Шамсутдинов в начале апреля стал жаловаться на головные боли, родные думали, что он нервничает из-за дистанционного обучения. Позже МРТ показало злокачественную опухоль головного мозга. В больнице студента отказались принять из-за карантина по коронавирусу.

In early April Raniel Shamsutdinov, a student from Sterlitamak, started to complain of headaches. His parents believed he was just nervous because of distance learning [put in place due to quarantine.] An MRI scan later revealed a malignant brain tumour. The hospital refused to admit him due to the coronavirus quarantine.

- Reported by Znak, May 9, collected by

Another refers to a comparison made by a local publication in the city of Tyumen, western Siberia.

За указанный период [Февраль-Май 2020 г.] в Тюмени прекратили свою работу 44 магазина одежды, 27 цветочных салонов, 22 кафе, кофеен и кондитерских, 17 детских и подростковых клубов, 10 праздничных агентств

In Tyumen, during the indicated period [between February and May 2020], 44 clothes shops, 27 flower shops, 22 cafes, coffee houses, and pastry shops, 17 children's and teenagers’ clubs, and 10 holiday agencies stopped operating.

- Reported by, May 14, collected by

The Tyumen publication continued that its newsroom received calls on an almost daily basis from locals complaining that they were now unable to pay their rent.

Importantly, these incidents remain all the more “unseen” by virtue of occurring in Russia's regions, where access to independent journalism is a tall order in comparison to Moscow or St Petersburg. Thus the project's regional focus sheds light on a largely “unseen” player in Russia's media ecosystem — the high-quality, independent media outlets founded in recent years to rectify that problem. is the brainchild of three of them: SemNaSem or “horizontal Russia,” Sector Four Media, and Gribnica. As Sector Four Media's editor Anastasia Sechina puts it, news outlets like these are “a step towards the decentralisation of our Moscow-centric Russia, which is badly needed across the board — particularly in journalism.”

Sechina, a researcher and coordinator for the project, spoke to RuNet Echo about her and her colleagues’ goals:

Maxim Edwards: How did the idea for this project arise?

Анастасия Сечина: С коронавирусной повесткой были трудности. С одной стороны, делать что-то, не оставаться в стороны казалось необходимым, с другой стороны – какой слой проблемы ни возьми – про это кто-то уже написал или готовился написать, просто потому что всё без исключения – и федеральные, и региональные медиа – «сидят» сейчас на коронавирусной повестке. Тогда мы стали думать так, как обычно думаем – о чём не говорится, какой слой проблемы мало исследован, какой фокус упускается? И как эти слои и фокусы обнаружить? Таким образом пришла идея мониторинга. 

Да, в конечном итоге на сайте есть и пока неочевидные жертвы, и жертвы, которые уже стали очевидными, но это нормально, мы не считаем, что их нужно удалять – просто потому что любая неочевидная проблема может перекочевать из «жёлтой зоны» в любую другую зону. И за время проекта так происходило уже неоднократно. В то же время есть проблемы, по которым острота снижается, и мы это также фиксируем. Например, поначалу было много сигналов о травле заболевших, о мошенничестве на коронавирусе, о проблемах людей, застрявших за границей. Сейчас таких сигналов единицы, зато, например серьёзно увеличилось число сигналов об отсутствии обещанных президентом доплат за работу с коронавирусом и о заражении COVID-19 из-за чужой безответственности или халатности. При этом изначально было много сигналов о проблемах предпринимателей и о том, что люди теряют доходы и работу – и число этих сигналов пока не снижается, каждую неделю их много. 

Anastasia Sechina: The coronavirus topic always presented difficulties. On the one hand, it seemed necessary to do something, to not avoid it. On the other hand, whatever aspect you tried to address, somebody had written about it or was preparing to write about it, simply because federal and regional media are, without obsession, glued to the topic. So we started to think, as we usually do, about what problems were poorly studied and what focuses were missing in reporting. And how could we detect those other layers? So the idea of a monitoring project arose.

Yes, eventually we ended up with “unseen” victims on the site, as well as victims whose problems are now “seen.” But that's normal, we don't think they should be removed: any unseen problem can migrate from the “yellow zone” to the “crimson zone,” and that's already happened more than once. At the same time, there are problems which become less severe, which we try to record. For example, initially there were lots of cases of harassment of patients, coronavirus-connected fraud, and people stuck overseas. Now there are very few of these cases, but there are many more incidents around the lack of additional payments which the president promised those who work closely with coronavirus patients; COVID-19 infections caused by somebody else's negligence have also increased. At the beginning there were also many complaints by business owners and employees who had lost their income and work; we hear a lot of these cases every week, and their number has not yet decreased.

ME: How have journalists responded to the project?

АС: Если речь про журналистов из регионов, которые захотели принять участие в проекте, то интерес был довольно высокий. Если речь о том, используют ли другие журналисты наш ресурс сейчас для освещения темы, то мне, к сожалению, ответить на этот вопрос сложно. После того, как мы запустили ресурс, то сделали рассылку по различным федеральным СМИ, межрегиональным СМИ, некоммерческим организациям. Кому-то из редакторов, кого знаю, написала лично. Они среагировали заинтересовано. Но мне пока неизвестно, пригодился ли наш ресурс в результате. 

Мы прекрасно понимаем, что если благодаря нашему ресурсу кто-то из журналистов нашёл кейс(ы) или персонажа(ей) для своей публикации, то будет странно писать что-то вроде: «Как рассказала Елена (её я нашёл благодаря сайту coronavictims)…». Мы создали штуку, которая может помочь сориентироваться в повестке, но объективно понимаем, что сложно при этом ожидать цитирования и ссылок на проект. 

Сейчас мы готовим инфографику по материалам проекта – возможно, она будет интересна другим журналистам и СМИ сама по себе и число ссылок на проект возрастёт. 

AS: If we're speaking about journalists from the regions who want to take part, then we can say that there's great interest. If we're speaking about whether journalists now use our resource to cover COVID-19, then that's difficult to answer. After we launched, we sent newsletters to various federal and regional media and NGOs. Some editors wrote to me personally and expressed great interest. But we still don't know whether our project came in handy as a result.

We're well aware that even if, thanks to our project, a journalist found an incident or a respondent which could be useful in their reporting, it would be odd of them to write something like “As Elena said (whom I found thanks to the Coronavictims website). We've created something which can help you navigate the news agenda, but we understand that it's hard to expect quotes about or links to the project.

At the moment we're preparing infographics based on the materials we have collected. Perhaps they'll be of interest to other journalists and the number of links to the project will increase.

ME: How important are social networks in discovering these cases, in comparison to news sources?

АС: С точки зрения технологии очень непросто вести мониторинг социальных сетей, просто потому что проект не предусматривает ресурсов на верификацию сигналов. Мы договорились, что журналисты команды мониторинга включают в результаты мониторинга публикации в соцсетях только в тех случаях, когда они лично знают автора поста и история рассказана от первого лица, а не с чьих-то слов. Но основным источником остаются всё-таки новостные сводки. Важно подчеркнуть, что часто публикации в местных СМИ появляются по мотивам постов в социальных сетях, поэтому в конечном итоге соцсети – важный поставщик сведений. Другое дело, что журналисты проводят верификацию изложенных файлов, в той или иной степени – не всегда, но многие стараются связаться с автором поста, узнать подробности, взять официальные комментарии. Получается, в наши результаты сигнал из соцсетей поступает нередко уже обросший дополнительными подробностями, которые появились благодаря местным журналистам. 

При этом мы стремимся оценивать то, насколько проверен тот или иной факт, изложенный в СМИ, и иногда не берём публикацию в результаты мониторинга, если есть сомнения. Но также нередко берём, даже если считаем, что она недостаточно глубоко верифицирована. Задача проекта всё-таки не проверить все публикации, а зафиксировать сигналы о проблеме и увидеть динамику этих сигналов – насколько часто они появляются, то есть – проблема усугубляется или сглаживается. Предположим, что в некой проблеме действительно есть несколько сообщений, где ситуация гиперболизирована, приукрашена или не совсем соответствует действительности, однако в целом такого рода сигналов – десятки, из разных регионов огромной страны. Все эти десятки не могут быть ложью и преувеличением, именно в своей совокупности они говорят о том, что проблема обретает масштаб. Нам важно зафиксировать именно это, и с точки зрения такого подхода мы считаем допустимой некоторую погрешность. 

AS: Technically speaking, it's rather difficulty to monitor social media, simply because our project doesn't have the resources to verify every case we find. We have agreed that journalists from the monitoring team should only cite posts on social networks if they personally know the author and the story is told in the first person, not second-hand in somebody else's words. But news reports remain the primary source. It's important to stress that reports by local media are themselves based on social media posts, so ultimately they are an important source. It's another matter to ensure that journalists verify these files to some degree and usually, if not always, try to contact the author of the post, find out details, and get quotes. Our results show that cases recorded from social media have often accrued all kinds of other details thanks to the work of local journalists.

At the same time, we do try and assess how well local media have verified their own facts. If we're in doubt, sometimes we do not cite the article in the results of our monitoring. But there are other times when we do just that, even if we believe that it could have been more thoroughly verified. The goal of our project is not to check every publication's work, but to take note of instances of various problems and their dynamics. How often they appear, whether the situation is deteriorating or improving. Suppose that we find several mentions of a problem which are indeed exaggerated or embellished or not wholly true in some fashion. There are dozens of cases like that across all the regions of this enormous country. But they can't all be a lie or an exaggeration; taken together, they reflect the growth of a particular problem. And that's precisely what we're trying to track. So in view of our approach, we consider some margin of error [in verification] to be acceptable.

ME: How would you assess Russian society's attitude to these “unseen problems” right now?

АС: Я бы сказала, что соразмерность проблемы коронавируса как такового и проблем, которые возникают из-за борьбы с коронавирусом, осмысливается. Два главных вопроса, которые появляются на повестке: насколько правильно то, что мы так серьёзно «уронили» малый и средний бизнес и насколько правильно то, что мы так серьёзно перестраиваем систему оказания медицинской помощи на оказание помощи людям с коронавирусом, если из-за этого страдают люди с другими заболеваниями (например, онкобольные, диабетики)? Рядовые граждане, журналисты, правозащитники задаются вопросами: насколько непродуманными были принятые меры, можно ли было поступить иначе, что можно сделать сейчас, чтобы скорректировать ситуацию? Мне сложно утверждать, я лишь надеюсь, что наш проект играет какую-то роль в этом осмыслении.

AS: I'd say it's widely understood that the scale of the problem posed by the coronavirus itself, and problems arising from of the fight against it, are proportionate. There are two key questions on everybody's minds. Firstly, how acceptable is it that small and medium sized businesses have been left in the lurch? And secondly, is it right to redirect the entire healthcare system towards helping coronavirus patients if doing so means that people with other diseases (such as cancer patients or diabetics) suffer as a result? Ordinary citizens, journalists, and human rights defenders alike are asking how the measures taken could have been so poorly thought out. Could anything have been done differently? What can be done now to get things back on the right track? It's hard for me to say. I just hope that our project plays some role in considering these issues.

After initially planning to continue collecting data until May 17, Sechina that she and her colleagues have now secured enough resources to keep the project running until June 18.

Ultimately, they hope that will last even longer. After all, it is safe to predict that the names and fates of more “unseen” victims will enter the database in weeks to come.

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