The Covid Outbreak in North Korea: What We Know and What We Don’t Know

North Korea reported 21 more deaths and 174,440 new “fever cases” on Friday, according to state media KCNA, although it did not specify how many Covid-related deaths and cases, possibly due to the country’s limited testing capacity.

But given the opaque nature of the regime and the country’s isolation from the world – a trend that has only intensified since the pandemic – it is extremely difficult to assess the real situation on the ground.

But North Korean state media reports are unclear and many important questions remain unanswered, including the coverage of vaccines in the country and the impact of the blockade on the livelihoods of its 25 million people.

Here’s what we know and don’t know about the hearth:

How did the outbreak appear?

North Korean authorities have not announced the cause of the epidemic.

North Korea’s borders have been tightly closed since January 2020 to keep the virus at bay, making the so-called “hermit nation” even more isolated from the world. He even rejected invitations to send teams to compete in the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics, citing the Covid-19 threat.
And as new options began to emerge, he stepped up those efforts, cutting off almost all trade with China – the country’s largest trading partner and economic bailout for the Kim regime – with imports from Beijing falling by 99% from September to October 2020. г.

It remains unclear how the virus escaped the country’s tightly closed borders.

When the KCNA announced the first identification of Covid-19 in the country on Thursday, it did not even specify how many infections were defective. It is simply said that the samples collected by a group of people suffering from fever on May 8 gave positive results for the highly contagious version of Omicron.

As of Friday, the KCNA announced that 18,000 new “fever cases” and six deaths had been registered on Thursday, including one that tested positive for Omicron’s BA.2 sub-variant.

“Fever, the cause of which cannot be identified, has spread explosively across the country since late April,” the newspaper said. “Currently, up to 187,800 people are isolated.”

On Saturday, the KCNA reported that a total of 524,440 people reported symptoms of fever between the end of April and May 13. Among them, 280,810 people are still in quarantine, while the rest have recovered.

Can North Korea cope with a large-scale epidemic?

The outbreak of Covid-19 could be catastrophic for North Korea. The deteriorating health infrastructure in the country and the lack of testing equipment are unlikely to cope with the task of treating a large number of patients with highly infectious diseases.

The lack of transparency and North Korea’s reluctance to share information is also a challenge.

North Korea has never officially acknowledged how many died during a devastating famine in the 1990s that killed up to 2 million people, experts say. Those fleeing the country at the time shared horrific death and survival stories and a country in chaos.

“North Korea has such limited supplies of essential medicines that public health officials need to focus on preventive medicine. They would be ill-prepared to deal with any kind of epidemic, “said Jean Lee, director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, where he told CNN at the start of the pandemic.

All her neighbors have it, so why hasn't North Korea reported coronavirus cases?

Doctors who have fled in recent years often talk about poor working conditions and a shortage of everything from medicines to basic health supplies.

Choi Yung-hoon, a former North Korean doctor who fled the country in 2011, said that when he helped fight the measles epidemic in 2006-2007, North Korea did not have the resources to maintain round-the-clock quarantine. and insulation facilities.

He recalled that after identifying suspicious cases, doctors’ manuals say that patients should be transferred to a hospital or quarantine facility.

“The problem in North Korea is that the manuals are not being followed. When there was not enough food for people in hospitals and quarantines, people fled in search of food, “Choi said in an interview with CNN in 2020.

How has North Korea reacted so far?

North Korean state media have declared the situation a “major national emergency” after acknowledging the first officially reported Covid infection.

On Thursday, Kim blocked all cities and quarantined “people with fever or unusual symptoms”; he also oversees the distribution of medical supplies reportedly government stocked in the event of a Covid emergency, according to KCNA.

Kim later chaired a meeting of the country’s powerful political bureau, which agreed to implement “maximum” emergency anti-epidemic measures. The measures include isolating work units and proactively conducting medical examinations to find and isolate people with “fever and unusual symptoms”, KCNA reported on Friday.

“Practical measures are being taken to maintain high rates of production in the main sectors of the national economy and to maximize the stabilization of people’s lives,” KCNA said.

North Korea announces first Covid deaths amid 'explosive attack' outbreak

According to the KCNA, the Politburo criticized the country’s anti-epidemic sector for “carelessness, negligence, irresponsibility and incompetence”, saying it had “failed to react sensitively” to the growing number of Covid-19 cases around the world, including in neighboring regions.

A reporter for the Chinese state media CGTN released a rare video from Pyongyang on Friday, recounting his experience on the spot.

“As far as we know, not many people in Pyongyang have been vaccinated, and medical and epidemic facilities are in short supply,” reporter Zang Qing told Weibo.

“Since the capital is closed, the food I have at home is only enough for a week. We are still waiting for what policy the government will announce next. “

At a meeting Saturday, Kim inspected the country’s emergency epidemics and medical supplies. He also called on North Korean officials to learn from “China’s advanced and rich quarantine results and experience in its fight against the malignant infectious disease,” according to the KCNA.

How about North Korea’s vaccine coverage?

North Korea is not known to have imported coronavirus vaccines – although it qualifies for the global Covid-19 vaccine program, Covax.

Assuming that most North Koreans are not vaccinated, an epidemic in the country – which has limited testing facilities, inadequate medical infrastructure and is isolated from the outside world – could quickly become deadly.

Calls on the country’s leadership to provide access to vaccines are growing.

“There is no evidence that North Korea has access to enough vaccines to protect its population from Covid-19. Still, it has rejected millions of doses of AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines offered by the WHO-led Covax program, Amnesty International said. East Asian researcher Boram Zhang in a statement.

“With the first official news of a Covid-19 outbreak in the country, continuing on this path could cost many lives and would be an unintentional disregard for the protection of the right to health.

Covax reportedly reduced the number of doses given to North Korea in February as the country failed to arrange any shipments, according to Reuters.

A spokesman for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said Covax had moved to a “needs-based vaccine distribution” and “currently has not committed any volume” to North Korea.

“If the country decides to launch a Covid-19 immunization program, vaccines can be provided based on Covax criteria and technical considerations to enable the country to meet international immunization targets,” the spokesman said. .

Joshua Berlinger and CNJ’s Junjung So contributed to this report.

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