Fear of finger pointing could help explain North Korea’s questionable COVID-19 statistics

North Korea released this photo of disease control officers in hazmat suits on May 13. (Rodong Sinmun)

North Korea’s quarantine “control tower,” the State Emergency Anti-Epidemic Command, has been unable to summarize every single death from COVID-19. Local officials are improperly reporting their numbers to Pyongyang for fear of being blamed for deaths, leaving the central government unable to calculate an accurate death toll.

Confusion about reporting instructions

A Daily NK source in Pyongyang said on Monday that the government had issued orders to report COVID-19 three times, with the orders changing each time.

When North Korea first officially announced a local outbreak of COVID-19 on May 12, officials reported suspected cases, fever cases, quarantined patients, fully recovered patients and deaths on a daily basis. In early June, the government ordered provinces — and only provinces — to compile death statistics and officials to report weekly or monthly death statistics when requested by the central government. Recently, however, the central government has again asked officials to produce daily reports.

The source said while reports of suspected cases, fever cases and quarantined patients continued, the government changed its instructions on reporting deaths before returning to the original order.

“The first order and third order called for a daily reporting system for normal statistics, while the second order was issued due to concerns that with an illness essentially as bad as the common cold, there was public will to engage in quarantine efforts Numbers have been released that could weaken in the event of death,” the source said.

According to the source, the second order was approved in early June after the quarantine commanders of Party, state, law, public safety and security under the state emergency anti-epidemic command gave their opinions on joint measures.

Worrying about guilt leads to false reports

The problem is that the North Korean quarantine authorities cannot accurately assess the COVID-19 situation because officials are minimizing the number of deaths. According to the source, the reality is that not even North Korean leader Kim Jong Un knows the real death toll.

“Local emergency anti-epidemic commandos bury their heads in the sand when reporting their death counts, and even the state emergency anti-epidemic commando does not report the numbers properly. They reduce or eliminate the death toll,” the source said. “People are holding back their reports as they say plenary sessions will censure or punish local officials’ apparent irresponsibility in their quarantine measures.”

That is because officials fear that if they report the death toll as it is, keep the numbers low, or cover up, they will be held responsible and punished for an “inadequate response” to COVID-19.

The source said that since even the State Emergency Anti-Epidemic Command is sending false reports, “they cannot berate the regional branches.”

“It would make sense for Kim Jong Un to receive fake reports,” he added.

fake causes of death

Local quarantine officials report attributing COVID deaths to other diseases in their chain of command reports.

The source said a small comment for “remarks” appeared on the statistics report form officials use to count deaths in provinces, cities and counties.

“The officials should write down the cause of death there,” he said. “But few local commands report the cause of death in patients with underlying conditions, elderly patients and children as COVID.”

Another source in North Hwanghae province said officials report that “few or almost no people are dying from COVID-19 in Sariwon.”

“That’s because officials generally treat people’s deaths as deaths from another disorder or a common illness,” he added.

The source went on to say that only patients under the age of 55 who die from symptoms such as fever are classified as “suspected COVID-related deaths” in the statistics. He said there have been about 210 deaths in Sariwon in the last month, “all of which have been reported as deaths from common diseases or suspected COVID-related deaths.”

Generally, when people with no underlying medical conditions die after showing suspected COVID-19 symptoms, they are not classified as “COVID deaths” but as “presumptive COVID deaths.”

While this might reflect the reality of statistical reporting of COVID deaths in North Korea, regional and lower-level quarantine officials still go around each day reporting general statistics on the COVID-19 situation.

“City, county, district, neighborhood, village, factory, workplace and organization quarantine officials are required to come forward [their statistics] every day at 5 p.m.,” the source said. “Quarantine officials below the city and county level race around by car, motorcycle, bike, or even on foot to get the stats for their jurisdictions.”

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler.

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