A North Korean hospital’s hasty cremation of a dozen patients it said had died of the flu and not of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), has raised fears and suspicions among the public living near the hospital, RFA has learned.
The swift cremation, which goes against the custom of returning the body to families, and the subsequent sterilization of the entire hospital have drawn attention to the hospital in Chongjin, the country’s third-largest city.
“On Feb. 9, a series of deaths occurred at the Provincial People’s Hospital in Chongjin, where patients were being treated for pneumonia and flu-like symptoms,” an official from North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday.
“With the death of 12 patients in a two-day period, quarantine authorities and residents in Chongjin are on high alert,” said the source.
The Provincial People’s Hospital is the largest medical facility in the province and the patients were hospitalized there earlier in the month when they developed flu and pneumonia-like symptoms, according to the source.
“The hospital failed to cure them of the flu and pneumonia, so 12 died and the hospital cremated the bodies and delivered the remains to their families,” said the source.
This act of cremation seemed suspicious to the source.
“In North Korea, no hospital, including the Provincial People’s Hospital, would cremate the body if a patient dies,” the source said.
“But this time, when the families expected to receive the bodies, they were given the cremated remains, and the hospital building was completely disinfected several times. They said [both procedures] would prevent the spread of the flu virus,” the source added.
The hospital has denied any connection to COVID-19, according to the source, but residents of the surrounding area are not so sure.
“[They] are feeling uneasy as more than 10 flu patients have died,” the source said.
“The hospital only says that the deaths were caused by flu and pneumonia, but suspicions are growing because of the sudden cremations,” the source said, adding, “[They] suspect that that the patients died from pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus.”
While a cover-up has not been confirmed, the source said that deliberately misleading the public would cause people to lose confidence in not only the hospital, but the government too.
“Recently the Central Party has been saying that we need to take serious steps toward preventing the spread of coronavirus. If the Provincial People’s Hospital is hiding the truth, it is going against the Central Party’s policy and deserves to be punished,” the source said.
RFA attempted to contact the World Health Organization (WHO) about the mysterious deaths in Chongjin and whether they were related to coronavirus, but as of Thursday there was no response. The WHO reported on Tuesday that there were no signs of coronavirus infection in North Korea.
Authorities in North Korea say that the country still has no confirmed cases of COVID-19. South Korea’s Yonhap news said Thursday that the WHO is virtually the only official channel that has a presence in North Korea that could confirm an outbreak, but as its data is based on reports from each member country, it is possible that the organization’s data on North Korea lack credibility.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.