06/01/2023, 14.55
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North Korea gets WHO executive board seat despite doubts over its handling of COVID-19

In a secret ballot, 123 members of the World Health Organisation voted for North Korea despite the lack of transparency in the way it handled the COVID-19 pandemic, which may still be raging in the country. This is a further sign of the influence North Korea’s Chinese ally wields within the United Nations health agency.

Geneva (AsiaNews) – North Korea won a seat on the executive board of the World Health Organisation (WHO) despite its lack of transparency in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, which may still be raging in the country.

“What this means is that one of the world's most horrific regimes is now a part of a group that sets and enforces the standards and norms for the global governance of health care,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, an independent non-governmental human rights group in Geneva.

Usually, elections to the WHO executive board are by consensus, but Russia challenged Ukraine's nomination, and so a secret vote was held. About 123 countries voted for North Korea, which got a seat along with Australia, Barbados, Cameroon, the Comoros Islands, Lesotho, Qatar, Switzerland, Togo and Ukraine.

A few weeks ago, WHO asked to be exempted from international sanctions against North Korea in order to send 500 oxygen treatment units on the grounds that COVID-19 cases are increasing in North Korea. However, no foreign aid personnel is left in Pyongyang.

In its request for exemption, WHO said it would work with local authorities to ensure that the equipment is used for its intended purposes, but local staff is handpicked by the regime.

Based on government data from a year ago, 3.3 million people (out of a population of about 26 million) developed fever due to a "respiratory disease"’ but only 69 died. That is a fatality rate of 0.002 per cent, the lowest in the world.

It is presently impossible to know the true extent of the pandemic. Given the lack of vaccines, an estimated 40 per cent rate of malnutrition in the population,[*] and the absence of adequate health facilities, the actual figures are probably much more worrying.

Despite the total closure of North Korea’s borders in January 2020 and the consequent economic collapse, for two years, North Korea denied that a coronavirus epidemic was underway on its territory.

Only on 12 May 2022 did leader Kim Jong-un admit to an outbreak and a few weeks later declared the new disease defeated. For analysts, it may have been a way to strengthen power over an already deeply exhausted population.

The World Health Organisation has been repeatedly criticised for its handling of the health crisis and many have blamed North Korea’s ally, China and its influence on the international body.

The WHO uncritically accepted data from Chinese authorities at the end of 2019, and waited before declaring the spread of the coronavirus a global health emergency.

In those initial weeks, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus travelled to China and praised the Chinese leadership for “setting a new standard for outbreak control."

Early on, China adopted a zero-COVID policy to prevent the spread of the virus.

According to some observers, the organisation's problem lies in the fact that it does not have the ability to challenge the data provided by individual states, especially those ruled by authoritarian regimes like Russia, China and North Korea, all countries where information is not freely available.

Yet, in 2003, during the SARS outbreak, WHO did criticise Beijing for its lack of transparency in managing the crisis. Subsequently, while the Trump administration reduced US financial contribution to the UN agency, China increased it, boosting its standing within the organisation.

China’s influence has, for example, kept Taiwan out of the WHO Assembly (because its communist regime considers the island nation part of China) even though it is one of the countries that has best managed the COVID-19 pandemic.

[*] The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) received an exemption from sanctions last month in order to boost local soybean production and improve nutrition in urban and rural areas.

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