SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — According to North Korea, its battle against COVID-19 has been impressive: Some 3.3 million people have reportedly had a fever, but only 69 have died.
If it’s all coronavirus cases, the death rate is 0.002%, something no other country, including the world’s richest country, has achieved with a disease that has killed more than 6 million people.
North’s claimHowever, encountering general suspicion about two weeks after it admitted it First domestic outbreak of COVID-19Experts say there should be far more deaths than reported in the impoverished northern region because of few vaccines, a considerable number of malnourished people and a lack of intensive care facilities and test kits to detect large numbers of cases of the virus.
North Korea’s secrecy makes it unlikely the outside world will confirm the true scale of the outbreak. Some observers say North Korea is underreporting the death toll in an effort to protect leader Kim Jong Un at all costs. It’s also possible that it has overstated the outbreak to tighten control of its 26 million people.
“Scientifically, their data cannot be accepted,” said Lee Yo Han, a professor at the Graduate School of Public Health at Ajou University in South Korea, adding that public data “is likely to be controlled (by the authorities) and embedded in their political intent. “
Most likely, North Korea will soon declare victory over COVID-19, possibly at a political meeting in June, with all credit going to Kim Jong Un’s leadership. Observers say the 38-year-old ruler is desperate to win greater public support as he deals with border closures, U.N. sanctions and severe economic hardship caused by his own mismanagement.
“All kinds of public complaints have accumulated, so it’s time to (strengthen) internal controls,” said Choi Kang, director of the Asan Policy Research Institute in Seoul. “Kim Jong-un has been leading the fight against the epidemic to show that his campaign was very successful and Strengthened his grip on power.”
Before North Korea acknowledged an omicron outbreak on May 12, it had held to a widely-controversial claim that there had been zero domestic infections in more than two years. When North Korea finally announced the outbreak, many wondered why now.
It was initially seen as an attempt to use the outbreak to obtain foreign humanitarian aid. It is hoped that possible aid from Seoul and Washington can help revive long-stalled diplomacy over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
King called the outbreak a “great upheaval” and launched what his advocacy team called an all-out effort to suppress it.
He held several Politburo meetings to criticize officials, inspected pharmacies at dawn, and mobilized the military to support drug delivery.A health official explained the pandemic response on national television, while national newspapers swarmed articles How to deal with a feverincluding gargling with salt water and drinking honey or willow tea.
“Honey is rare for ordinary North Koreans. When their government asks them to drink honey tea, they probably feel bad,” said Seo Jae-pyong, a defector-turned-activist in Seoul. “I have an older brother in North Korea and I’m worried about him.”
Every morning, North Korea releases details on the number of new patients with fever symptoms, but not COVID-19 patients. Experts believe 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 fever caused by other prevalent infectious diseases.
North Korea’s daily fever count peaked at nearly 400,000 early last week; it has plummeted to around 100,000 over the past few days. On Friday, one more death came after three days in a row of no deaths.
“Our country has set a world record for the longest period without a single (COVID-19) infection… We have now achieved the achievement of turning the tide of a sudden outbreak in a short period of time,” the main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said Thursday. “This obviously proves the scientific nature of our country’s emergency anti-epidemic measures.”
Medical experts question the validity of North Korea’s claimed 0.002 percent mortality rate. Given the 0.6 percent mortality rate for unvaccinated omicron variants in South Korea, North Korea’s mortality rate must be similar or higher because of its low ability to treat patients and its people’s malnutrition, said Shin Young-jeon, a professor of preventive medicine. Department of Medicine, Hanyang University, Seoul.
In a study published last year by Johns Hopkins University, North Korea was ranked 193rd out of 195 countries in its ability to respond to an epidemic. The United Nations has reported in recent years that about 40 percent of its people are malnourished. North Korea’s liberal socialist public healthcare system has been in disarray for decades, with defectors testifying that while in North Korea they bought medicines at markets or elsewhere.
“North Korea doesn’t really care about the death toll at all,” said Choi Jung-hoon, a North Korean defector who worked as a doctor in North Korea in the 2000s. “Many North Koreans have died from malaria, measles, chickenpox and typhoid. There are all kinds of infectious diseases out there.”
Choi, now a researcher at an institute affiliated with Korea University in South Korea, said North Korea may decide to acknowledge the omicron outbreak because it believes it is less lethal and easier to contain. He suspects North Korea has set up a scenario to raise and then lower fever cases to advance Kim’s leadership.
Ajou Professor Lee said North Korea may have exaggerated its early fever cases to give the public a “strong shock” to garner support for the government, but avoided releasing too many details of the deaths to avoid public unrest.
Professor Shin warned that the outbreak could eventually kill more than 100,000 people if people remain unvaccinated and die at the same rate as South Korea.
Moon Jin-soo, director of the Institute of Health and Unification at Seoul National University, said the outbreak in North Korea could last for months. He said there was an urgent need to ship antiviral pills and other essential medicines to North Korea, not a vaccine that will take at least several months to roll out.
“North Korea could spend a few more months studying the statistics, but they could also suddenly declare victory this weekend,” said Ahn Kyung-su, director of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focused on North Korea’s health. North Korea always exceeds your imagination. It’s hard to predict what they’ll do, but they do have a plan.