Widespread disbelief over North Korea's tiny COVID-19 death rate
According to North Korea, its fight against COVID-19 has been impressive: About 3.3 million people have been reported sick with fevers, but only 69 have died.
If all are coronavirus cases, that's a fatality rate of 0.002%, something no other country, including the world's richest, has achieved against a disease that has killed more than 6 million people.
The North's claims, however, are being met with widespread doubt about two weeks after it acknowledged its first domestic COVID-19 outbreak. Experts say the impoverished North should have suffered far greater deaths than reported because there are very few vaccines, a sizable number of undernourished people and a lack of critical care facilities and test kits to detect virus cases in large numbers.
North Korea's secretiveness makes it unlikely outsiders can confirm the true scale of the outbreak. Some observers say North Korea is underreporting fatalities to protect leader Kim Jong Un at all costs. There's also a possibility it might have exaggerated the outbreak in a bid to bolster control of its 26 million people.
"Scientifically, their figures can't be accepted," said Lee Yo Han, a professor at Ajou University Graduate School of Public Health in South Korea, adding that the public data "were likely all controlled (by the authorities) and embedded with their political intentions."
The most likely course is that North Korea soon proclaims victory over COVID-19, maybe during a June political meeting, with all credit given to Kim's leadership. The 38-year-old ruler is desperate, observers say, to win bigger public support as he deals with severe economic difficulties caused by border shutdowns, UN sanctions and his own mismanagement.
"Diverse public complaints have accumulated, so it's time to (strengthen) internal control," said Choi Kang, president of Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies. "Kim Jong Un has been taking the lead in the anti-epidemic efforts to show that his campaign is very successful and to reinforce his grip on power."
Before North Korea on May 12 admitted to an Omicron outbreak, it had maintained a widely disputed claim that it had zero domestic infections for more than two years. When the North at last publicized the outbreak, many wondered why now.
It was initially seen as an attempt to exploit the outbreak to get foreign humanitarian assistance. There were hopes that possible aid by Seoul and Washington could help resume long-stalled diplomacy on Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Kim has called the outbreak a "great upheaval" and launched what his propaganda teams call an all-out effort to suppress it.
He's held several Politburo meetings to criticize officials, inspected pharmacies at dawn and mobilized troops to support medicine delivery. A health official explained pandemic responses on state TV, while state newspapers have churned out articles on how to deal with fever, including gargling with saltwater and drinking honey or willow leaf tea.
"Honey is a rarity for ordinary North Koreans. They likely 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 elder brother left in North Korea and have big worries about him."
Every morning, North Korea releases details about the number of new patients with fever symptoms, but not with COVID-19. 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 the symptoms from fevers caused by the other prevalent infectious diseases.
North Korea's daily fever tally peaked at nearly 400,000 early last week; it has nosedived to around 100,000 in the past few days. On Friday, it added one more death after claiming no fatalities for three consecutive days.
"Our country set a world record for having no single (COVID-19) infection for the longest period ... and we've now made an achievement of reversing the tide of the abrupt outbreak in a short period," the main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said Thursday. "This evidently proves the scientific nature of our country's emergency anti-epidemic steps."
Medical experts question the validity of North Korea's stated fatality rate of 0.002%. Given that South Korea's mortality rate of unvaccinated people for the Omicron variant was 0.6%, North Korea must have similar or higher death rates because of its low capacity to treat patients and its people's poor nutrition, said Shin Young-jeon, a professor of preventive medicine at Seoul's Hanyang University.
In a study published by the Johns Hopkins University last year, North Korean ranked 193 out of 195 countries for its ability to deal with an epidemic. UN reports in recent years said about 40% of its people were undernourished. North Korea's free socialist public health care system has been in shambles for decades, and defectors testify that while in the North, they bought medicines at markets or somewhere else.
"North Korea wouldn't really care about fatalities 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 kind of infectious diseases there."
Choi, now a researcher at a Korea University-affiliated institute in South Korea, said North Korea likely decided to admit to the Omicron outbreak because it sees it as less lethal and more manageable. He suspected North Korea set up a scenario to raise up and then bring down fever cases so as to boost Kim's leadership.
Lee, the Ajou professor, said North Korea may have overstated its earlier fever cases to give "a powerful shock" to the public to rally support for the government, but avoided releasing details of too many deaths to stave off public unrest.
The outbreak could eventually kill more than 100,000, if people remain unvaccinated and die at the same death rate as in South Korea, Shin, the Hanyang professor, warned.
The North Korean outbreak will likely last several months, Moon Jin Soo, director of the Institute for Health and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, said. It's urgent to ship anti-viral pills and other essential medications to North Korea, rather than vaccines whose roll out would take at least a couple of months, he said.
"North Korea could spend a couple more months massaging the statistics, but they could also abruptly announce their victory this weekend," said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focusing on health issues in North Korea. "North Korea always operates beyond your imagination. It's hard to predict what they'll do, but they do have a plan."
What questions do you have about Omicron?
With the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant of concern, labelled Omicron, CTVNews.ca wants to hear from Canadians with any questions.
Tell us what you’d like to know when it comes to the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
To submit your question, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, location and question. Your comments may be used in a CTVNews.ca story.
MORE HEALTH NEWS
CTVNews.ca Top Stories
Thousands of people wearing red and white and waiving Canadian flags packed downtown Ottawa to celebrate Canada's 155th birthday on Friday, while groups of protesters popped up around Parliament Hill to protest COVID-19 vaccines and federal restrictions.
It's been 25 years since Saskatchewan's last residential school closed, but some are still healing.
Biden intends to nominate a conservative, anti-abortion lawyer to federal judgeship, Kentucky Democrats say
U.S. President Joe Biden intends to nominate an anti-abortion Republican lawyer to a federal judgeship, two Kentucky Democrats informed of the decision say.
Canada Day has kicked off the unofficial start of summer, and the tourism sector is hopeful the first season in three years largely free of COVID-19 restrictions will marshal a much-needed boost for a pandemic-stricken industry.
A California man has posted a widely-shared video in an attempt to educate people about the monkeypox virus outbreak, to encourage people to get vaccinated if they're eligible and to make it very clear: 'You do not want this.'
When Dan Fine returned from his first trip volunteering at animal shelters on the Polish-Ukrainian border in late April, he immediately felt compelled to return to continue helping pets that have been left behind in the war.
Moving toward reconciliation doesn't come from jumping 'the queue to perfection,' but by building bridges and trusting one another, Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk told CTV News Channel during Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa on Friday.
In the wake of last year’s discoveries of unmarked graves at residential schools and the prominent displays of the Canadian flag during 'Freedom Convoy' protests, some Canadians are re-evaluating the meaning of the national symbol.
'Not going to happen in our lifetime': First-time homebuyers share their struggles with purchasing a home
A recent survey shows nearly 50 per cent of Canadians who rent expect to do so forever. As rising interest and inflation rates contribute to a sense of pessimism among first-time homebuyers in Canada, some are sharing their struggles with purchasing their first house.
With his wife Joyce on his arm, Tom Hennessy left Victoria Park in London, Ont. to complete his 100-mile walk to raise money for homeless veterans.
After becoming a casualty of a major downsizing at work, Robert Mah converted his minivan into a solar-powered mobile office and drove from Ontario to Victoria, B.C.
One of Toronto’s Canada Day fireworks displays has been cancelled and another has been postponed after a vendor pulled out at the last minute.
The Assembly of First Nations says an Ontario court has rejected a bid by National Chief RoseAnne Archibald to overturn her recent suspension.
A Russian airstrike on residential areas killed at least 21 people early Friday near the Ukrainian port of Odesa, authorities reported, a day after the withdrawal of Moscow's forces from an island in the Black Sea had seemed to ease the threat to the city.
A Texas inmate who is set to be put to death in less than two weeks asked that his execution be delayed so he can donate a kidney.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has appealed against the British's government decision last month to order his extradition to the U.S.
Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday defended his vision of the 'one country, two systems' framework against accusations by the U.S., U.K. and others that Beijing has undermined the freedoms and autonomy promised to Hong Kong for 50 years.
A Florida judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit in which the parents of Gabby Petito claim that Brian Laundrie told his parents he had killed her before he returned home alone from their western trip.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is calling on Canadians to recommit to the country’s values, including respect, hope and kindness, in his official Canada Day message.
Gov. Gen. Mary Simon says Canadians should work together to build an inclusive society in her official message to the nation to mark Canada Day.
Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre joined the final leg of a march led by a Canadian soldier charged for speaking out against COVID-19 vaccine requirements that has sparked promises -- and fears -- of a new wave of protests in the capital.
Infection with HIV can accelerate aging within the first two to three years of infection, study says
Living with HIV may have an immediate effect on how your body ages, according to new research which showed that cellular aging was sped up within two to three years of infection.
The World Health Organization's Europe chief warned Friday that monkeypox cases in the region have tripled in the last two weeks and urged countries to do more to ensure the previously rare disease does not become entrenched on the continent.
Germany and Nigeria on Friday signed an agreement paving the way for the return of hundreds of artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes that were taken from Africa more than 120 years ago -- an accord that Nigerian officials hope will prompt other countries to follow suit.
A pair of orcas drove great white sharks away from a stretch of South African coast after killing five sharks over just a few months in 2017, according to a new study.
The TBone study, conducted over a seven-year period starting in 2015, found that prolonged weightlessness accelerated bone loss in the astronauts.
Canadian rock legend Randy Bachman's long search came to an end Friday when he was reunited in Tokyo with a cherished guitar 45 years after it was stolen from a Toronto hotel.
R. Kelly has been placed on suicide watch at the federal detention facility in New York where he is being held after he was sentenced this week to 30 years in prison on racketeering and sex trafficking charges, his lawyer said Friday.
The July Fourth holiday weekend is off to a booming start with airport crowds crushing the numbers seen in America in 2019, before the pandemic.
Airport workers went on strike at Paris' main international airport Roissy-Charles de Gaulle on Friday, forcing the cancellation of about 10 per cent of flights and bringing more disruption to early summer travel.
President Vladimir Putin has raised the stakes in an economic war with the West and its allies with a decree that seizes full control of the Sakhalin-2 gas and oil project in Russia's far east, a move that could force out Shell and Japanese investors.
A rare portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales, will be on public display for the first time after it was recently sold for US$201,600 at auction.
Starting in January, Venice will oblige day-trippers to make reservations and pay a fee to visit the historic lagoon city, in a bid to better manage visitors who often far outnumber residents in the historic centre, clogging narrow streets and heavily-used foot bridges crossing the canals.
The Canada Day long weekend is the perfect time for burgers on the grill, cold drinks and time with family and friends. Yet a backyard barbecue comes with a bigger price tag this year as food prices soared 9.7 per cent in May.
American basketball star Brittney Griner went on trial Friday, 4 1/2 months after her arrest on charges of possessing cannabis oil while returning to play for a Russian team, in a case that has unfolded amid tense relations between Moscow and Washington.
More video in Brazilian media shows retired Formula One champion Nelson Piquet using homophobic language and more racial slurs about Lewis Hamilton.
Belgian rider Yves Lampaert won the Tour de France opening stage while two-time defending champion Tadej Pogacar finished third on Friday.
Former Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone drew condemnation on Thursday after the 91-year-old defended Russian President Vladimir Putin in a television interview as a 'first class person' he would 'take a bullet' for.
Ontario gas prices are about to take a huge drop and one expert says it will be 'well worth waiting' if drivers can hold off on filling up.
The car experts at Edmunds compare and contrast two electric newcomers - 2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS and the 2022 Audi e-tron GT- to help you decide which premium battery-powered four-door is right for you.