NKorea claims no new fever cases amid doubts over COVID data

SEOUL – North Korea reported no new fever cases on Saturday for the first time since it abruptly admitted its first national outbreak of COVID-19 and placed its 26 million people under more draconian restrictions in May.

There have been widespread doubts outside about the accuracy of North Korea’s statistics, as its reported deaths are too low and its daily fever cases have dropped too rapidly recently. Some experts say North Korea likely manipulated the scale of illnesses and deaths to help leader Kim Jong Un maintain absolute control amid growing economic difficulties.

The northern epidemic center said via state media that it had not found any patients with fever in the past 24 hours, keeping the country’s total number of cases at around 4.8 million. Its death toll remains at 74, with a fatality rate of 0.0016% which would be the lowest in the world if true.

Despite zero reported cases, it’s unclear if and when North Korea would officially declare victory over COVID-19 and lift pandemic-related restrictions as experts say it could face a resurgence. viral later this year, like many other countries. North Korean state media recently said it was stepping up and upgrading its anti-epidemic systems to guard against coronavirus subvariants and other diseases like monkeypox plaguing other countries.

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“The unique organizational strength and unity of (North Korea’s) society are fully manifested in the struggle for victory in the emergency anti-epidemic campaign,” the official Korean News Agency said on Saturday. Central News Agency.

North Korea’s claimed zero cases could have symbolic significance in its efforts to establish Kim’s image as a leader who suppressed the outbreak much faster than other countries. Kim would need such credentials to garner greater public support to overcome economic hardship caused by pandemic-related border closures, UN sanctions and his own mismanagement, observers said.

“In North Korea, public health and politics cannot be separated from each other, and this aspect has been revealed again during its COVID-19 outbreak,” said Ahn Kyung-su, official. from DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a health-focused website. problems in North Korea. “Since they started with manipulated data, they are now ending the outbreak with manipulated data.”

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North Korea was expected to report zero cases as its daily number of fever cases has plummeted in recent days – there were three cases reported on Friday and 11 on Thursday – from a peak of around 400,000 by day in May. The country, which lacks testing kits, has only identified a fraction of its 4.8 million fever patients as confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“In reality, hundreds of thousands of daily fever cases become zero in less than three months, it’s something impossible,” said Lee Yo Han, a professor at the Graduate School of Public Health at Ajou University. in South Korea.

Many outside experts previously feared the North’s outbreak could have devastating consequences as most of its people would not be vaccinated and about 40% would be undernourished. But now activists and defectors with contacts in North Korea say they have heard nothing like a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the North. They say the country’s outbreak has also likely peaked.

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In a sign that the outbreak is slowing, North Korea last week held massive public mask-free events in its capital, Pyongyang, where thousands of elderly Korean War veterans and others gathered gathered from all over the country to celebrate the 69th anniversary of the late 1950s. -53 war. At an anniversary ceremony, Kim hugged and exchanged handshakes with veterans before taking group photos with other attendees. No one was wearing a mask, state media photos show.

Shin Young-jeon, professor of preventive medicine at Hanyang University in Seoul, said North Korea would know that zero cases does not mean it has no COVID-19 patients because there are likely cases. asymptomatic. He said North Korea is unlikely to announce that it has officially defeated the pandemic anytime soon due to concerns about a resurgence.

“North Korea’s state media has used expressions before as if they are winning their anti-virus fight. The only other expression they can use now is to declare that the coronavirus has been completely eliminated from its territory. “Shin said. “But if new cases reappear, North Korea would lose face.”

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The only avenue for North Korea’s new viral spread from abroad is likely through China, its main ally which shares a long porous border with the country, and North Korea would likely find it hard to announce victory over the pandemic until China does, Lee said. .

The border between North Korea and China has been largely closed for more than 2.5 years, except for a few months when it reopened earlier this year.

Some observers say the North’s elevated response to the pandemic has provided Kim with a tool to shore up his authoritarian rule amid public complaints about longstanding restrictions. They say North Korea could report a small number of fever cases again in the coming days.

Foreign experts are struggling to assess the true death toll in North Korea. They note that the shortage of testing kits in the North would also make it virtually impossible for the country to determine whether elderly people or others with underlying illnesses have died of COVID-19 or something else.

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Shin, the university professor, stood by his earlier study which predicted that North Korea would likely suffer 100,000 to 150,000 deaths. It said it used South Korean data showing its death rate of unvaccinated people for the omicron variant, whose outbreak North Korea admitted in May was 0.6%.

Other experts say the death toll in the North could be several thousand at most. They said higher death rates must have been detected by North Korean monitoring groups.

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