North Korea confirms 21 new deaths as it battles COVID-19

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North Korea on Saturday reported 21 new deaths and 174,440 more people with fever symptoms as the country scrambled to slow down. the spread of COVID-19 among its unvaccinated population.

The new deaths and cases, which were from Friday, brought the total number to 27 deaths and 524,440 illnesses amid a rapid spread of the fever since late April. North Korea said 243,630 people had recovered and 280,810 remained in quarantine. State media did not specify how many of the fever cases and deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 infections.

The country imposed nationwide lockdowns on Thursday after confirming its first COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. He had previously upheld for more than two years a widely disputed claim of a perfect record that warded off the virus that has spread to almost every corner of the world.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, during a meeting on anti-virus strategies on Saturday, described the outbreak as a historic “major disruption” and called for unity between the government and the people to stabilize the outbreak as quickly as possible.

Expressing optimism that the country could control the outbreak, Kim said most transmissions occur within communities that are isolated from one another and do not spread from one region to another. Since Thursday, the country has imposed stricter precautionary measures aimed at restricting the movement of people and supplies between cities and counties, but state media descriptions of the steps indicate people are not confined to their homes.

Experts say the failure to control the spread of COVID-19 could have devastating consequences in North Korea, considering the country’s poor health care system and its 26 million people largely unvaccinated.

Tests of virus samples collected on Sunday from an unspecified number of people with a fever in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant, state media said. So far, the country has officially confirmed one death related to an omicron infection.

virus outbreak japan north korea
A passerby walks past a screen showing an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wearing a face mask on a television news program in Tokyo, Friday, May 13, 2022.

Shuji Kajiyama/AP


Short of vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other important health tools to combat the virus, North Korea’s pandemic response will mostly consist of isolating people with symptoms in designated shelters, experts say.

North Korea does not have the technological and other resources to impose extreme lockdowns like China, which has locked down entire cities and confined residents to their homes, nor could it afford to do so at the risk of triggering further shock to a fragile economy. , said. Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

While calling for stricter preventive measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, Kim also stressed that the country’s economic goals must be met, which likely means large groups will continue to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

It is unusual for isolated North Korea to admit to an outbreak of any infectious disease, let alone one as threatening as COVID-19, as it is intensely proud and sensitive to outside perceptions of its self-styled “socialist utopia.” But experts disagree on whether the North’s announcement of the outbreak communicates a willingness to receive outside help.

The country had rejected millions of doses offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly due to concerns about the international monitoring requirements attached to those injections.

North Korea has a higher tolerance for civilian suffering than most other nations, and some experts say the country may be willing to accept a certain level of death to gain immunity through infection, rather than receiving vaccines and other outside help.

South Korea’s new conservative government led by President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office on Tuesday, has offered to send vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea on humanitarian grounds, but Seoul officials say North Korea has not asked. help so far.

The viral spread may have accelerated after a few tens of thousands of civilians and troops gathered for a massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, where Kim took center stage and displayed the most powerful missiles from his military nuclear program.

After maintaining one of the world’s strictest border closures for two years to protect its failing health care system, North Korea reopened rail freight traffic with China in February ostensibly to ease pressure on its economy. But China confirmed the closure of the route last month as it battled COVID-19 outbreaks in border areas.

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