North Korea announces first Covid deaths amid ‘explosive’ outbreak

On Thursday, North Korea reported 18,000 new “fever cases” and six deaths, one of which tested positive for Omicron subvariant BA.2, state media KCNA reported on Friday.

North Korea has not confirmed that all “fever” cases and deaths are due to Covid-19, likely due to its limited testing capacity.

“A fever whose cause could not be identified has spread explosively throughout the country since late April,” the newspaper said. “As of today, up to 187,800 people are in isolation.”

A Covid-19 outbreak could prove disastrous for North Korea. The country’s dilapidated healthcare infrastructure is unlikely to be up to the task of treating large numbers of patients with a highly infectious disease and the country is not known to have imported vaccines against the coronavirus.

North Korea had previously acknowledged no cases of coronavirus, although few believe a country of around 25 million people has been spared a virus that has infected millions around the world.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the state headquarters for emergency epidemic prevention on Thursday and acknowledged that the spread of the epidemic meant there was a “vulnerable point” in the country’s epidemic prevention system, according to KCNA.

In footage of the meeting released by state media, Kim wears a surgical mask as he enters and exits the meeting room. The accompanying officials also wear masks everywhere.

“It is the most important challenge and supreme tasks facing our party to reverse the immediate public health crisis situation,” Kim said, according to KCNA.

Following a meeting of the country’s powerful politburo on Thursday, North Korea placed all cities under quarantine and ordered “people with fever or abnormal symptoms” to self-quarantine, KCNA said.

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

“As far as we know, few people in Pyongyang have been vaccinated, and medical and epidemic prevention facilities are scarce,” reporter Zang Qing said in a post on Weibo.

“Because the capital is on lockdown, the food I have at home is only enough for a week. We are still waiting for the policy that the government will announce next.”

Global support

On Thursday, China declared itself ready to support North Korea in its fight against Covid-19.

North Korea’s borders have been sealed since January 2020 to keep the virus at bay, despite the ripple effects on trade with Beijing, an economic lifeline the impoverished country needs to keep its people from going hungry. .

“As comrades, neighbors and friends, China stands ready to give full support to the DPRK in its fight against the epidemic,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said during a briefing. a press briefing.

As China battles its own outbreak, China’s National Immigration Administration has urged Jilin province – which borders North Korea – to step up health inspections at its customs after North Korea reported its first case of Covid-19.

South Korea and the United States also agreed to continue discussions on ways to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea with the international community, South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a press release.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke in a call on Friday and shared their concerns about the Covid-19 situation in North Korea, the ministry said. Both countries are open to dialogue with the north, they said.

Zero vaccine could spell disaster

North Korea is believed not to have received any Covid vaccines, despite being eligible for the global Covid-19 vaccine-sharing program, Covax.

Assuming most of North Korea’s population is unvaccinated, an outbreak in North Korea — which has limited testing capabilities, inadequate medical infrastructure and has isolated itself from the outside world — could quickly turn deadly. .

Calls are increasing to the country’s leaders to provide access to vaccines.

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

“With the first official news of a Covid-19 outbreak in the country, continuing down this path could cost many lives and would be an unconscionable failure to uphold the right to health.”

In February, Covax reportedly reduced the number of doses allocated to North Korea because the country did not organize any shipments, according to Reuters.

A spokesperson for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said Covax has moved to “needs-based vaccine allocations” and “has not currently committed any volumes” for North Korea.

“In the event that the country decides to launch a vaccination program against Covid-19, vaccines could be made available based on the criteria of the Covax targets and technical considerations to allow the country to catch up with the international vaccination targets” , said the spokesperson.

From CNN, Philip Wang contributed.

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