Widespread disbelief at North Korea’s miniscule COVID-19 death rate

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According to North Korea, its fight against COVID-19 has been impressive: around 3.3 million people have been reported sick with the fever, but only 69 have died.

If all are coronavirus cases, that’s a death rate of 0.002%, which no other country, including the world’s richest, has reached against a disease that has killed more than 6 million people.

The North’s claims, however, are the subject of widespread doubt some two weeks after acknowledging its first nationwide outbreak of COVID-19. Experts say the impoverished North should have suffered a much higher death toll than expected because there are very few vaccines, a significant number of undernourished people and a lack of intensive care facilities and test kits. to detect large numbers of virus cases.

North Korea’s secrecy makes it unlikely that outsiders can confirm the true scale of the outbreak. Some observers say North Korea is underreporting deaths to protect leader Kim Jong Un at all costs. It is also possible that it has exaggerated the outbreak in a bid to tighten control over its 26 million people. .

“Scientifically, their numbers cannot be accepted,” said Lee Yo Han, a professor at the Graduate School of Public Health at Ajou University in South Korea, adding that the public data “was probably all controlled.” [by the authorities] and rooted in their political intentions.”

The most likely course is for North Korea to proclaim victory over COVID-19 soon, perhaps at a political meeting in June, with all credit given to Kim’s leadership. Observers say the 38-year-old leader is desperate to win greater public support as he faces severe economic hardship caused by border closures, UN sanctions and his own mismanagement.

“Various complaints from the public have accumulated, so it is time to [strengthen] internal control,” said Choi Kang, president of the Seoul Asan Institute of Policy Studies. “Kim Jong Un has taken the lead in anti-epidemic efforts to show that his campaign is very successful and to strengthen his grip on power.

Before North Korea admitted to an omicron outbreak on May 12, it had maintained a widely disputed claim that it had had no domestic infections for more than two years. When the North finally announced the outbreak, many wondered why now.

It was first seen as an attempt to exploit the epidemic to obtain foreign humanitarian aid. It was hoped that possible help from Seoul and Washington could help revive diplomacy long stalled over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Kim called the outbreak a “great upheaval” and launched what his propaganda teams call an all-out effort to quell it.

He held several Politburo meetings to criticize officials, inspected pharmacies at dawn, and mobilized troops to support drug delivery. A health official explained pandemic responses on state television, while state newspapers ran articles on how to deal with fever, including gargling with salt water and drinking honey or willow leaf tea.

“Honey is a rarity for ordinary North Koreans. They probably felt bad when their government asked them to drink honey tea,” said Seo Jae-pyong, a North Korean defector turned activist in Seoul. “I have an older brother left behind in North Korea and I have serious concerns about him.”

Every morning, North Korea releases details of the number of new patients with symptoms of fever, but not with COVID-19. Experts say most cases should be counted as COVID-19 because while North Korean health authorities lack diagnostic kits, they still know how to distinguish symptoms from fevers caused by other common infectious diseases.

North Korea’s daily fever tally peaked at nearly 400,000 early last week; it has plunged to around 100,000 in the past few days. On Friday, it added one more death after reporting no fatalities for three consecutive days.

“Our country has set a world record for having no singles [COVID-19] infection for the longest period…and we have now successfully reversed the course of the brutal epidemic in a short time,” the main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said on Thursday. “This obviously proves the scientific nature of our country’s anti-emergency response. -epidemic stages.”

FILE – A teacher takes the body temperature of a schoolgirl to help curb the spread of the coronavirus before entering Kim Song Ju Elementary School in the Central District of Pyongyang, North Korea, October 13, 2021.

Medical experts question the validity of North Korea’s reported death rate of 0.002%. Since South Korea’s unvaccinated death rate for the omicron variant was 0.6%, North Korea must have similar or higher death rates due to its low capacity to treat patients and poor nutrition of its people, said Shin Young-jeon, professor of preventive medicine. medicine at Hanyang University in Seoul.

In a study released last year by Johns Hopkins University, North Korea ranked 193rd out of 195 countries for its ability to cope with an epidemic. UN reports in recent years have indicated that around 40% of its population is undernourished. North Korea’s free socialist public health care system has been in shambles for decades, and defectors testify that when they were in the North, they bought medicine in markets or elsewhere.

“North Korea wouldn’t care about deaths at all,” said Choi Jung Hun, a defector who worked as a doctor in North Korea in the 2000s. “Many North Koreans have already died of malaria, measles, chickenpox and typhoid. There are all kinds of infectious diseases there.”

Choi, now a researcher at an institute affiliated with Korea University in South Korea, said North Korea probably decided to admit the omicron outbreak because they see it as less deadly and more manageable. . He suspected North Korea of ​​setting up a scenario to increase and then decrease fever cases in order to bolster Kim’s leadership.

Lee, Professor Ajou, said North Korea may have exaggerated its early fever cases to give “a powerful shock” to the public to rally support for the government, but avoided disclosing details of too many deaths to avoid public disorder.

The epidemic could eventually kill more than 100,000 people, if people remain unvaccinated and die at the same death rate as in South Korea, warned Shin, the Hanyang professor.

North Korea’s outbreak will likely last for several months, said Moon Jin Soo, director of the Institute for Health and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. There is an urgent need to ship antiviral pills and other essential drugs to North Korea, rather than vaccines which would take at least two months to roll out, he said.

“North Korea could spend a few more months massaging the stats, but it could also abruptly announce victory this weekend,” said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a Seoul-based website that focuses on health issues in North Korea. “North Korea always operates beyond your imagination. It’s hard to predict what they’ll do, but they have a plan.”

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