North Korea claims no new fever cases amid doubts over COVID-19 data

North Korea claims no new fever cases amid doubts over COVID-19 data
The North’s anti-epidemic center said via state media it had found zero fever patients in the latest 24-hour period, maintaining the country’s total caseload of about 4.8 million. (File/AFP)
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Updated 30 July 2022

North Korea claims no new fever cases amid doubts over COVID-19 data

North Korea claims no new fever cases amid doubts over COVID-19 data
  • Despite the claimed zero cases, it is unclear whether and how soon North Korea would formally declare victory over COVID-19
  • Foreign experts struggle to assess the true number of fatalities in North Korea

SEOUL: North Korea on Saturday reported no new fever cases for the first time since it abruptly admitted to its first domestic COVID-19 outbreak and placed its 26 million people under more draconian restrictions in May.
There have been widespread outside doubts about the accuracy of North Korean statistics as its reported fatalities are too low and its daily fever cases have been plummeting too fast recently. Some experts say North Korea has likely manipulated the scale of illness and deaths to help leader Kim Jong Un maintain absolute control amid mounting economic difficulties.
The North’s anti-epidemic center said via state media it had found zero fever patients in the latest 24-hour period, maintaining the country’s total caseload of about 4.8 million. Its death count remains at 74, with a mortality rate of 0.0016 percent that would be the world’s lowest if true.
Despite the claimed zero cases, it is unclear whether and how soon North Korea would formally declare victory over COVID-19 and lift pandemic-related curbs because experts say it could face a viral resurgence later this year like many other countries. North Korea’s state media has recently said it’s intensifying and upgrading its anti-epidemic systems to guard against coronavirus subvariants and other diseases like monkeypox that are occurring in other countries.
“The organizational power and unity unique to the society of (North Korea) is fully displayed in the struggle to bring forward a victory in the emergency anti-epidemic campaign,” the official Korean Central News Agency said Saturday.
North Korea’s claimed zero cases could have symbolic significance in its efforts to establish Kim’s image as a leader who has suppressed the outbreak much faster than other countries. Kim would need such credentials to garner greater public support to surmount economic hardships caused by pandemic-related border closings, UN sanctions and his own mismanagement, observers say.
“In North Korea, public health care and politics can’t be separated from each other, and that aspect has been revealed again in its COVID-19 outbreak,” said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focusing on health issues in North Korea. “Since they began with manipulated data, they’re now putting an end to the outbreak with manipulated data.”
North Korea had been widely expected to claim zero cases as its daily fever caseload has been nosediving in recent days — there were three reported cases on Friday and 11 on Thursday — from a peak of about 400,000 a day in May. The country, which lacks test kits, has identified only a fraction of its 4.8 million fever patients as confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“Realistically speaking, hundreds of thousands of daily fever cases becoming zero in less than three months is something impossible,” said Lee Yo Han, a professor at Ajou University Graduate School of Public Health in South Korea.
Many outside experts earlier worried the North’s outbreak would have devastating consequences because most of its people are believed to be unvaccinated and about 40 percent are reportedly undernourished. But now, activists and defectors with contacts in North Korea say they haven’t heard about anything like a humanitarian disaster happening in the North. They say the country’s outbreak has also likely peaked.
In an indication of an easing outbreak, North Korea this week held massive no-mask public events in its capital, Pyongyang, where thousands of aged Korean War veterans and others gathered from across the country to celebrate the 69th anniversary of the end of the 1950-53 war. During an anniversary ceremony, Kim hugged and exchanged handshakes with some veterans before he took group photos with other participants. No one wore masks, according to state media photos.
Shin Young-jeon, a professor of preventive medicine at Seoul’s Hanyang University, said North Korea would know that zero cases don’t mean it has no COVID-19 patients because there are likely asymptomatic cases. He said North Korea won’t likely announce it has officially beaten the pandemic anytime soon because of worries about a resurgence.
“North Korea’s state media has already used expressions like it’s winning its anti-virus fight. The only other expression they can use now is declaring the coronavirus has been completely eliminated from its territory,” Shin said. “But if new cases emerge again, North Korea would lose its face.”
The only route for North Korea’s fresh viral spread from abroad is likely China, its main ally which shares a long, porous border with the country, and North Korea would likely find it difficult to announce victory over the pandemic until China does so, Lee said.
The North Korea-China border has been largely shut for more than 2 ½ years, except for a few months when it reopened earlier this year.
Some observers say the North’s elevated pandemic response has provided Kim with a tool to boost his authoritarian rule amid public complaints over long-running restrictions. They say North Korea could report a small number of fever cases again in the coming days.
Foreign experts struggle to assess the true number of fatalities in North Korea. They note the North’s shortage of test kits would also make it virtually impossible for the country to determine whether aged people or others with underlying diseases died of COVID-19 or something else.
Shin, the university professor, stood by his earlier study that predicted North Korea would likely suffer 100,000-150,000 deaths. He said he used South Korean data showing its mortality rate of unvaccinated people for the omicron variant, whose outbreak North Korea admitted in May, was 0.6 percent.
Other experts say the North’s fatalities would be several thousand at the maximum. They said bigger death tolls must have been detected by North Korea monitoring groups.


Erdogan warns of ‘another Chernobyl’ after talks in Ukraine

Erdogan warns of ‘another Chernobyl’ after talks in Ukraine
Updated 12 sec ago

Erdogan warns of ‘another Chernobyl’ after talks in Ukraine

Erdogan warns of ‘another Chernobyl’ after talks in Ukraine
  • A flare-up in fighting around Europe’s largest nuclear facility in Russian-controlled southern Ukraine has sparked urgent warnings from world leaders
LVIV, Ukraine: Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Thursday of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine during his first face-to-face talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky since Russia’s invasion began, echoing pleas from the UN’s chief.
A flare-up in fighting around Europe’s largest nuclear facility in Russian-controlled southern Ukraine has sparked urgent warnings from world leaders, and UN chief Antonio Guterres cautioned during talks with Erdogan that any damage to the plant would be akin to “suicide.”
“We are worried. We don’t want another Chernobyl,” Erdogan said during a press conference in the eastern city of Lviv, during which he also assured the Ukrainian leader that Ankara was a firm ally.
“While continuing our efforts to find a solution, we remain on the side of our Ukraine friends,” Erdogan said.
Guterres said he was “gravely concerned” about the situation at the plant and that it had to be demilitarized, adding: “We must tell it like it is — any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia is suicide.”
Erdogan, who has major geopolitical rivalries with the Kremlin but maintains a close working relationship with President Vladimir Putin, met with the Russian leader less than two weeks ago in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The Turkish leader and Guterres were key brokers of a deal inked in Istanbul last month allowing for the resumption of grain exports from Ukraine after Russia’s invasion blocked essential global supplies.
The success of the grain deal contrasts with failed peace talks early in the war, and Zelensky on Thursday ruled out peace with Russia unless it withdrew its troops from Ukraine.
He told reporters he was “very surprised” to hear from Erdogan that Russia was “ready for some kind of peace,” adding: “First they should leave our territory and then we’ll see.”
Fighting raged along the front on Thursday and early Friday.
Bombardments across the city of Kharkiv and nearby Krasnograd left at least six dead and 25 injured on Thursday, just one day after Russian bombardments killed 13 in the country’s second-largest urban center.
Early-morning shelling on Friday also targeted the city of Nikopol, according to a local military official, while the mayor of Mykolayiv reported “massive explosions” there around the same time.
Fighting in recent weeks has focused around the southern region of Zaporizhzhia and the nuclear facility there, and Zelensky called on the UN to ensure security at the plant after direct talks with Guterres, while also blaming Russia for “deliberate” attacks on the facility.
Russian forces took the plant in March and uncertainty surrounding it has fueled fears of a nuclear incident.
Moscow dismissed Ukrainian allegations Thursday, saying its forces had not deployed heavy weapons at Zaporizhzhia and accusing Kyiv of preparing a “provocation” there that would see Russia “accused of creating a man-made disaster at the plant.”
Kyiv, however, insisted it was Moscow that was planning a “provocation” at the facility.
Ukrainian military intelligence said in a Facebook post on Thursday night that it had received reports that all but a “small part of operational personnel” at the plant had been ordered to stay home on Friday, while representatives of Russia’s state nuclear operator “actually left the territory” of the facility.
“Considering the number of weapons that are currently located on the territory of the nuclear plant, as well as repeated provocative shelling, there is a high probability of a large-scale terrorist attack at the nuclear facility,” it said.

Xi, Putin to attend G20 summit in Bali, says Indonesia’s Widodo — Bloomberg News

Xi, Putin to attend G20 summit in Bali, says Indonesia’s Widodo — Bloomberg News
Updated 19 August 2022

Xi, Putin to attend G20 summit in Bali, says Indonesia’s Widodo — Bloomberg News

Xi, Putin to attend G20 summit in Bali, says Indonesia’s Widodo — Bloomberg News

Chinese and Russian leaders Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin will attend the G20 summit in Bali in November, Indonesian President Joko Widodo told Bloomberg News on Thursday.
“Xi Jinping will come. President Putin has also told me he will come,” Jokowi, as he is popularly known, told the news agency.
The Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment. Indonesia presidential palace officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Indonesia is chairing the Group of 20 major economies and has faced pressure from Western countries to withdraw its invitation to Putin over his country’s invasion on Ukraine, which his government calls a “special military operation.”
Jokowi has sought to position himself as mediator between the warring countries, and has traveled to meet both Ukraine’s and Russia’s presidents. This week, Jokowi said both countries have accepted Indonesia as a “bridge of peace.”
Leaders of major countries, including US President Joe Biden, are set to meet in Indonesia’s resort island of Bali in November. Indonesia has also invited Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky.


UK spy chief says Putin is losing information war in Ukraine — The Economist

UK spy chief says Putin is losing information war in Ukraine — The Economist
Updated 19 August 2022

UK spy chief says Putin is losing information war in Ukraine — The Economist

UK spy chief says Putin is losing information war in Ukraine — The Economist

Russia has failed to gain ground in cyberspace against Ukraine almost six months after its invasion of the country, the head of Britain’s GCHQ intelligence service said on Friday.
Jeremy Fleming, the intelligence head, in an op-ed in The Economist, wrote that both countries have been using their cyber capabilities in the war in Ukraine.
“So far, president Putin has comprehensively lost the information war in Ukraine and in the West. Although that’s cause for celebration, we should not underestimate how Russian disinformation is playing out elsewhere in the world,” Fleming wrote.
“Just as with its land invasion, Russia’s initial online plans appear to have fallen short. The country’s use of offensive cyber tools has been irresponsible and indiscriminate.”
Fleming said Russia had deployed WhisperGate malware to destroy and deface Ukrainian government systems.
He also said Russia has used the same playbook before on Syria and the Balkans and said online disinformation is a major part of Russia’s strategy. However, the GCHQ has been able to intercept and to provide warnings in time, he said.
Without going into much detail, Fleming said the UK’s National Cyber Force could respond to Russia by deploying a UK military unit that employs offensive cyber tools.


Brain-eating amoeba suspected in 2nd US Midwest death

Brain-eating amoeba suspected in 2nd US Midwest death
Updated 19 August 2022

Brain-eating amoeba suspected in 2nd US Midwest death

Brain-eating amoeba suspected in 2nd US Midwest death
  • People are usually infected when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose while swimming or diving into lakes and rivers

OMAHA, Nebraska: A child likely died from a rare infection caused by a brain-eating amoeba after swimming in an eastern Nebraska river, health officials said, making it the second such probable death in the Midwest this summer and raising the question of whether climate change is playing a role.
The Douglas County Department of Health based in Omaha, Nebraska, reported Wednesday that doctors believe the child died of primary amebic meningoencephalitis, a usually fatal infection caused by the naegleria fowleri amoeba. Health officials believe the child came into contact with the amoeba on Sunday while swimming in the Elkhorn River just west of Omaha.
Officials have not released the child’s identity.
Last month, a Missouri resident died of the same infection likely caused by the amoeba at Lake of Three Fires in southwestern Iowa. Iowa officials closed the lake’s beach as a precaution for nearly three weeks.
People are usually infected when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose while swimming or diving into lakes and rivers. Other sources have been documented, including tainted tap water in a Houston-area city in 2020. Symptoms include fever, headache, nausea or vomiting, progressing to a stiff neck, loss of balance, hallucinations and seizures.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says naegleria fowleri infections are rare — there are about three cases in the United States every year — but that those infections are overwhelmingly fatal.
There were 154 cases reported between 1962 and 2021 in the US, with only four survivors, according to the CDC. Of those, 71 cases were reported between 2000 and 2021. Texas and Florida recorded the most infections with 39 and 37 cases respectively, and the amoeba is typically found in southern states because it thrives in waters that are warmer than 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius).
But infections have migrated north in recent years, including two cases in Minnesota since 2010, Douglas County Health Director Dr. Lindsey Huse noted during a news conference Thursday.
“Our regions are becoming warmer,” she said. “As things warm up, the water warms up and water levels drop because of drought, you see that this organism is a lot happier and more typically grows in those situations.”
According to the National Water Information System, the surface water temperature near where the child was swimming was between 86 and 92 degrees.
Jacob Lorenzo-Morales, a researcher at the Universidad de La Laguna in the Canary Islands who has studied naegleria fowleri, said Thursday that an increase in infections since 2000 can be blamed on two factors: better knowledge and diagnosis of the disease, and the rising temperature in bodies of water providing “a perfect environment” for the amoeba to thrive.
Researcher Sutherland Maciver, who has studied the amoeba at the Center for Discovery Brain Sciences at Edinburgh Medical School in Scotland, says not all infections are reported and that the 430 cases that have ever been reported worldwide are almost certainly an undercount. And, he said, scientists cannot say with certainty that the Nebraska case is directly attributable to climate change.
The two researchers co-authored a paper titled “Is Naegleria fowleri an Emerging Parasite?” that examined factors behind the increase in reported cases.
Health officials recommend that freshwater swimmers plug their noses, avoid putting their heads underwater and avoid activities such as water skiing and tubing, which could force water into the nose, eyes or mouth. You cannot be infected by drinking contaminated water.


Crisis-hit Sri Lanka to ask Japan to open talks with main creditors, says Wickremesinghe

Crisis-hit Sri Lanka to ask Japan to open talks with main creditors, says Wickremesinghe
Updated 18 August 2022

Crisis-hit Sri Lanka to ask Japan to open talks with main creditors, says Wickremesinghe

Crisis-hit Sri Lanka to ask Japan to open talks with main creditors, says Wickremesinghe
  • Sri Lanka, a tear-shaped tropical country of 22 million people, is facing its most severe financial crisis since independence from Britain in 1948

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka will ask Japan to invite the Indian Ocean island’s main creditor nations, including China and India, to talks on bilateral debt restructuring, as it seeks a way out of its worst economic crisis in decades, its president said on Thursday.

“Someone needs to call in, invite the main creditor nations. We will ask Japan to do it,” President Ranil Wickremesinghe told Reuters in an interview, adding that he would travel to Tokyo next month and hold talks with Japanese premier Fumio Kishida.

Sri Lanka, a tear-shaped tropical country of 22 million people, is facing its most severe financial crisis since independence from Britain in 1948, resulting from the combined impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic mismanagement.

Left with scant foreign exchange reserves, stalling imports of essentials including fuel and medicines, ordinary Sri Lankans have been battling crippling shortages of months amid sky-rocketing inflation and a devalued currency.

Public anger stoked unprecedented mass protests, with thousands of people storming the colonial-era presidential residence in Sri Lanka’s commercial capital Colombo in early July, forcing then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa into hiding.

Protesters occupied the residence for days, some of them sleeping in the president’s bedroom and others frolicking in a swimming pool surrounded by manicured gardens.

Rajapaksa, a former military officer, then fled the country to Singapore and resigned, becoming the first Sri Lankan president to quit mid-term.

Wickremesinghe, who is also finance minister, said he will present an interim budget in September which won a parliamentary vote and took office as president on July 21. Local broadcaster Newsfirst, citing a former ambassador, said on Wednesday that Rajapaksa would return home next week.

Wickremesinghe said he was “not aware” of any such plans, speaking to Reuters at the presidential secretariat, part of which had also been occupied by protesters.

Besides seeking assistance from its allies, Sri Lanka is also negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan package worth between $2 billion and $3 billion, Wickremesinghe said.

Sri Lanka’s total bilateral debt was estimated at $6.2 billion at the end of 2020 by the IMF, according to a March report. An IMF team is expected to arrive in the country at the end of August to continue talks to reach a staff-level agreement.

Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister who is also finance minister, said he will present an interim budget in September which will focus on fiscal consolidation measures agreed with the IMF.

Expenditure will be slashed by a “few hundred billions” of rupees to channels funds for welfare and to repay high interest rates, he said.

Cuts will include defense, which has retained the highest budgetary allocation despite Singhalese-majority Sri Lanka ending a bloody civil war with Tamil rebels more than a decade ago.

The interim budget will be followed by a full-year budget for 2023, likely to be presented in November, where a broader recovery plan will be outlined.

“So, both those budgets will put out government policy. The first one on stabilization and the second one will look at recovery,” he said.

Overall, Wickremesinghe said he expects the economy, heavily reliant on tourism and tea, to see a recovery in the second half of 2023, reaching a revenue surplus of about 3 percent by 2025.

“I think we are restructuring to make Sri Lanka a very competitive, export-oriented economy,” he said.