SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Tuesday reported another large jump in illnesses believed to be COVID-19 as a mass outbreak spreads through its unvaccinated population and military medical officers were deployed to distribute medicine.
State media said the North’s anti-virus headquarters reported another 269,510 people were found with fevers and six people died. That raises North Korea’s deaths to 56 after more than 1.48 million people became ill with fever since late April. North Korea lacks testing supplies to confirm coronavirus infections in large numbers, and the report didn’t say how many of the fever cases were COVID-19.
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Given the inability to test and provide treatment for those who have become sick, the outbreak could be even more severe than what was reported. North Korea’s virus response is mostly isolating people with symptoms at shelters, and as of Tuesday, at least 663,910 people were in quarantine.
North Korea lacks vaccines to protect its 26 million inhabitants. The country also has malnourishment problems and other poverty conditions.
Experts believe that North Korea might be hiding deaths in order to help Kim Jong Un’s authoritarian leadership. Kim Jong Un was already facing some of the hardest moments of his decade at power. The pandemic is further damaging the economy, already damaged by U.S.-led sanctions and mismanagement regarding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The North’s fatalities may surge in coming weeks as those who develop symptoms later succumb to the illness.
It’s also possible that fever cases are underreported by officials who worry about punishment or people don’t report their symptoms because they fear the strict quarantine measures, analysts say.
As part of the preventative measures against Covid-19, employees spray disinfectant at Pyongyang Children’s Department Store Pyongyang’s on March 18, 2022.
KIM WON AFP/KIM WON JIN via Getty Images
North Korea admitted domestic COVID-19 infected for the first times last Thursday. It ended a widespread doubtful claim that the nation was immune from the virus throughout the pandemic.
Describing the outbreak as a “great upheaval,” Kim imposed preventive measures including restrictions on movement and quarantines. Kim expressed concern over the outbreak, but also said that it was important to achieve his economic goals. This means that large populations will gather in order to continue their work in agriculture, construction, and industrial.
According to the official Korean Central News Agency, Tuesday’s announcement stated that military officers were deployed from medical units in order to transport medicine to Pyongyang pharmacies. These pharmacy opened 24 hours per day for the outbreak.
KCNA said the army units “expressed their will to convey the precious medicines, elixir of life, associated with the great love of Kim Jong Un for the people to the Pyongyangites.”
It’s unclear whether the North’s admission of an outbreak communicates a willingness to receive outside help. Due to international monitoring obligations attached to vaccines, the country refused millions of vaccines distributed by U.N.-backed COVAX.
South Korea offered to provide vaccines and medical personnel. However, North Korea rejected the offer amid the icy relations that have developed between rivals due to a standoff in bigger nuclear negotiations between Washington, Pyongyang. Some experts say Kim’s praise of China’s pandemic response during a virus meeting last week indicates that the North would be more willing to receive help from its main ally.
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Experts say the only realistic outside help would be offering limited supplies of vaccines to reduce deaths among high-risk groups, including the elderly and people with preexisting conditions, as it’s too late to stop a broad spread of the virus across the North’s population.
“With the country yet to initiate COVID-19 vaccination, there is risk that the virus may spread rapidly among the masses unless curtailed with immediate and appropriate measures,” Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Southeast Asia, said in a statement. The WHO was ready to support North Korea’s testing efforts and provide essential medicine and supplies.
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