North Korea has emerged from its first wave of COVID-19 with by far the lowest fatality rate of any country in the pandemic’s history, at least according to state media.
In the almost three months since they abruptly announced the country’s first official outbreak, their leader Kim Jong Un and the Workers' Party of North Korea have largely avoided referring to the virus as COVID, describing it instead as an “obscure febrile disease” and “fever.”
But on Friday, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced that all patients suffering from “fever” had recovered, adding that the country’s “anti-epidemic situation” had “entered a definite phase of stability.” Reports further declared that North Korea would “redouble efforts to maintain perfection in the execution of state anti-epidemic policies.”
KCNA claimed that about 4.77 million fever patients had fully recovered since late April—and that of those, just 74 had died. That would make North Korea’s COVID fatality rate the lowest in the world by a considerable margin. The live mortality analyses tracker from Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Centre currently lists Bhutan as having the world’s lowest death-infection ratio, with just 21 fatalities from 60,530 COVID cases. Even that as a percentage (0.03) is so vanishingly small that Johns Hopkins rounds it down to zero. North Korea’s works out to be about 0.0016 percent.
The announcement, which came just five days after KCNA declared that there were no new “fever” cases in the country for the first time since mid-May, has drawn suspicion from experts, who claim the figures being publicly released by the North Korean government border on the impossible.
“North Korean propaganda is telling us that the outbreak that they said started in April is essentially over,” Colin Zwirko, senior analytical correspondent at NK News, told VICE World News. “They've been telling us for months how many fever cases there have been on a daily basis throughout the country, and now they've said for the last almost one week straight that there is nobody in the entire country who has had a fever. That’s obviously unreasonable and probably impossible.”
Shin Young-jeon, a professor at Hanyang University's medical school in Seoul, was similarly incredulous, also saying the figures were nearly “impossible.” He suggested that given the number of fever cases, the fatality rates reported in other countries, and the potential of unreported cases throughout North Korea, there could be as many as 50,000 COVID deaths.
The potentially misleading data coming out of North Korea “could result from a combination of a lack of testing capacity, counting issues given the fact that old people have higher chances of dying from COVID mostly from home, and political reasons that the leadership do not want to publicise a massive death toll,” Shin wrote in an analysis released on July 29.
Zwirko further pointed out that North Korea’s public claims and statistics shouldn’t be trusted, in part because of the government’s insistence on using ambiguous language and being “openly unscientific” about their reporting methods. There is, however, some indication that the uncontrolled spread of the virus is no longer a major concern for North Korean authorities.
“One pretty useful piece of evidence that they're trying to get back to normal and that there's no uncontrolled spread of the virus right now is that they held large-scale celebrations in every major city in the country on July 27,” Zwirko pointed out. “So they're definitely showing us that they're confident that there's no current uncontrolled spread of the virus. [But] I think that's about as far as we can go with determining just how much of the virus is left in the country.”
South Korea's Unification Minister Kwon Young-se, who is responsible for inter-Korean affairs, said this week that while there were “credibility issues” with the North's data, the COVID situation seemed “somewhat under control.”
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