North Korea set to ease COVID-19 restrictions despite doubts over case numbers

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and other top officials discussed revising tough anti-epidemic restrictions at a meeting on Sunday, state media reported, as they maintained a widely disputed claim that the country’s first COVID-19 outbreak was slowing.

Discussion at the North’s Politburo meeting suggests he will soon ease a set of draconian restrictions imposed after he admitted the omicron outbreak this month out of concern over his food and economic situation.

Kim and other Politburo members “made a positive assessment of controlling and improving the pandemic situation across the country,” the official Korean News Agency said.

They also “discussed the issue of effective and timely coordination and enforcement of anti-epidemic regulations and guidelines given the current stable anti-epidemic situation,” KCNA said.

On Sunday, North Korea reported 89,500 more patients with fever symptoms, bringing the country’s total to 3.4 million. He did not say if there were any additional deaths. The country’s latest death toll reported on Friday was 69, setting its death rate at 0.002%, an extremely low number that no other country, including advanced economies, has reported in the fight against COVID-19. .

Many outside experts say North Korea is clearly underestimating its death rate to avoid any political damage to Kim at home. They say North Korea should have suffered many more deaths because its 26 million people are largely unvaccinated against COVID-19 and lack the capacity to treat patients in critical conditions. Others suspect North Korea exaggerated its early fever cases in an attempt to tighten its internal control of its population.

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There are fears of a COVID-19 disaster in North Korea as officials reject offers of vaccines and aid from other countries. The spike in cases is partly blamed on a series of nationwide celebrations in April where huge unvaccinated crowds gathered, likely spreading the virus.

Since its May 12 admission of the omicron outbreak, North Korea has only announced the number of patients with febrile symptoms daily, but not those with COVID-19, reportedly due to a shortage of test kits to confirm coronavirus cases in large numbers.

But many outside health experts consider most reported fever cases to be COVID-19, saying North Korean authorities would know how to distinguish the symptoms from fevers caused by other common infectious diseases.

Nationwide lockdown

The outbreak forced North Korea to impose a nationwide lockdown, isolate all work and living units from each other, and ban region-to-region movement.

The country still allows major agricultural, construction and other industrial activities, but tougher restrictions have raised concerns about its food insecurity and a fragile economy already hard hit by border closures caused by the pandemic.

Some observers say North Korea will likely soon declare victory over COVID-19 and attribute it to Kim’s leadership.

Yang Un-chul, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea, said the North’s recently tightened restrictions were expected to deal a serious blow to its coal, agriculture and other high-intensity industrial sectors. labor intensity.

But he said those hardships were unlikely to grow to a level that would threaten Kim’s grip on power, as the COVID-19 outbreak and tighter curbs gave him a chance to tighten his grip on his people. .