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

Today, Saturday, North Korea announced 21 new deaths and 174,440 people who showed symptoms of fever as the country seeks to slow the spread of COVID-19 among its unvaccinated residents.

The deaths and new cases, which began on Friday, increased the total to 27 deaths and 52,440 cases of illness amid a rapid spread of fever since late April. North Korea said 243,630 people have recovered and 280,810 are still in quarantine. State media did not specify the number of fever cases and deaths that were confirmed as COVID-19 infections.

The country imposed what it described as extreme precautions on Thursday after confirming the first cases of coronavirus infection since the beginning of the epidemic. It has previously held out for more than two years a widely questionable claim to a perfect record keeping a virus that has spread almost everywhere in the world.

During a meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo on Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described the outbreak as a historical “big disruption” and called for unity between the government and the people to stabilize the outbreak as quickly as possible.

The official Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang said that officials mainly discussed ways to quickly distribute medical supplies that the country released from emergency reserves. In a report submitted to the Politburo, North Korea’s emergency office blamed most of the deaths on “errors such as overuse of medicines, deprived of scientific medical treatment”.

Kim, who said he has been donating some of his own medical supplies to help with the anti-virus campaign, expressed optimism that the country could bring the outbreak under control, saying most transmissions occur within communities that are isolated from one another and do not spread from them. From region to region.

He called on officials to learn lessons from successful responses to the epidemic from other countries and chose as an example China, North Korea’s main ally.

However, China is facing pressure to change its so-called “zero COVID” strategy that has brought major cities to a standstill as it struggles to slow a fast-moving omicron variant.

North Korea has imposed since Thursday steps aimed at restricting the movement of people and supplies between cities and provinces, but state media descriptions of the measures indicate that people are not confined to their homes.

Experts say a failure to control the spread of COVID-19 could have dire consequences in North Korea, given the country’s poor healthcare system and its 26 million residents largely unvaccinated.

State media said that tests of virus samples collected on Sunday from an unspecified number of feverish people in the capital, Pyongyang, confirmed that they had contracted the variant Omicron. The country has so far officially confirmed one death linked to omicron infection.

With a shortage of vaccines, antiviral tablets, intensive care units and other key health tools to combat the virus, North Korea’s pandemic response will mostly be about isolating people who show symptoms in designated shelters, experts say.

He said North Korea does not have the technological and other resources to impose severe lockdowns like China, which has shut down entire cities and confined residents to their homes, and cannot afford to do so at the risk of unleashing more shocks to the fragile economy. Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

Even as he called for stronger preventive measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kim also stressed that the country’s economic goals must be met, which likely means huge groups will continue to congregate at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

North Korea’s claim to an exemplary record of keeping the virus at bay for two and a half years has been widely questioned. But overly strict border closures, widespread quarantines, and propaganda that emphasized antiviral controls as a matter of “national presence” may have stopped the widespread outbreak so far.

Experts have been mixed about whether North Korea’s announcement of the outbreak indicates its willingness to receive outside help.

The country had avoided millions of doses provided by the UN-backed COVAX distribution programme, possibly due to concerns about international monitoring requirements associated with these shots.

North Korea tolerates civilian suffering to a greater degree than most other countries, and some experts say the country may be willing to accept some level of deaths to gain immunity through infection, rather than receiving vaccines and other outside aid.

South Korea’s new conservative government led by President Yoon Seok-yeol, who took office on Tuesday, has offered to send vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea, but officials in Seoul say North Korea has not yet asked for help. Relations between the two rival Koreas have worsened since 2019 after nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang skewed.

However, Kim’s call for his officials to learn from China’s experience suggests that North Korea may soon order COVID-19-related drugs and testing equipment from China, said analyst Cheong Seong-chang at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Friday that Beijing was ready to provide assistance to North Korea, but said he had no information on any such request.

North Korea’s viral spread could have been accelerated after an estimated tens of thousands of civilians and troops gathered for a massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, with Kim taking center stage and displaying the most powerful missiles of his military nuclear program.

After maintaining one of the world’s strictest border closures for two years to protect a poor healthcare system, North Korea reopened freight rail traffic with China in January, seemingly relieving pressure on its economy. China confirmed the road closure last month as it battled the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease in border areas.

Hours after North Korea admitted its first case of COVID-19 on Thursday, the South Korean military discovered that North Korea had tested three ballistic missiles in what appeared to be a defiant show of force.

Kim accelerated his weapons offerings in 2022, including the country’s first ICBM in nearly five years. Experts say Kim’s brinkmanship is aimed at forcing Washington to accept the North as a nuclear power and negotiate the lifting of crippling US-led sanctions and other concessions from a stronger position.

South Korean and US officials also say North Korea may be preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since 2017, which they say could happen as early as this month.