North Korea reported 21 deaths and 174,440 new “fever” cases on Friday, according to state media and the KCNA, although it did not specify the number of deaths and cases linked to Covid, likely due to the country’s very limited testing capacity.
But given the opaque nature of the regime and the country’s isolation from the world – a trend that has only worsened since the pandemic – it is very difficult to assess the real situation on the ground.
But North Korea’s state media reports have been murky, and many important questions remain unanswered, including coverage of the country’s vaccine and the impact of the lockdown on the livelihoods of 25 million people.
Here’s what we know and what we don’t know about the outbreak:
How did the outbreak appear?
North Korean authorities have not announced the cause of the outbreak.
It remains unclear how the virus infiltrated the country’s tightly closed borders.
When the Korean Central News Agency reported the country’s first Covid-19 diagnosis on Thursday, it did not even specify how many infections had defected. He simply said that samples collected from a group of people who had a fever on May 8 had tested positive for the highly contagious Omicron variant.
By Friday, the Korean Central News Agency reported that 18,000 new “fever cases” and six deaths had been recorded on Thursday, including one who tested positive for Omicron’s BA.2 subtype.
“The fever, whose causes could not be identified, has spread explosively across the country since late April,” the newspaper said. So far, up to 187,800 people are isolated.”
On Saturday, the Korean Central News Agency said that a total of 52,440 people reported symptoms of “fever” between late April and May 13.
Can North Korea counter a large-scale deployment?
The Covid-19 outbreak could be catastrophic for North Korea. The country’s dilapidated healthcare infrastructure and lack of testing equipment are unlikely to be up to the task of treating a large number of patients with the highly contagious disease.
North Korea’s lack of transparency and unwillingness to share information is also a challenge.
North Korea has never officially acknowledged the death toll during the devastating famine in the 1990s which experts estimate killed as many as two million people. Those who fled the country at the time shared harrowing stories of death, survival, and a country in disarray.
“North Korea has such a limited supply of essential drugs that public health officials need to focus on preventive medicine. They will be ill-equipped to deal with any kind of epidemic,” Jan Lee, director of the Hyundai Motor Korea Foundation’s Center for Korean History at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said. to CNN at the start of the pandemic.
Doctors who have defected in recent years often speak of poor working conditions and a shortage of everything from medicines to basic health care supplies.
Choi Jong-hoon, a former North Korean doctor who fled the country in 2011, said that when he was helping fight the 2006-2007 measles outbreak, North Korea didn’t have the resources to work around the clock in quarantine and isolation. services.
He noted that after identifying suspicious cases, evidence told doctors that patients were supposed to be transferred to a hospital or quarantine facility for monitoring.
“The problem in North Korea is not following the guidebooks. When there was not enough food for people in hospitals and quarantine facilities, people fled to look for food,” Choi said during an interview with CNN in 2020.
How has North Korea responded so far?
North Korea’s state media declared the situation a “major national emergency” after accepting the first officially reported infection with the COVID-19 virus.
On Thursday, Kim imposed a lockdown of all cities, ordering “people with fever or abnormal symptoms” to quarantine; He also directed the distribution of medical supplies that the government had reportedly stockpiled in case of a COVID emergency, according to the Korean Central News Agency.
Kim later chaired a meeting of the country’s powerful Politburo, which agreed to implement “maximum” emergency measures to combat the epidemic. The measures include isolating work units and proactively conducting medical examinations to find and isolate people with “fever and abnormal symptoms,” the Korean Central News Agency reported on Friday.
“Practical measures are being taken to keep the production rate high in the main sectors of the national economy and to stabilize people’s lives to the fullest extent,” the agency said.
According to the Korean Central News Agency, the Politburo criticized the country’s anti-epidemic sector for “negligence, laxity, irresponsibility and incompetence,” saying it “failed to respond sensitively” to the increase in Covid-19 cases worldwide, including neighboring regions.
A reporter for Chinese state media CGTN posted a rare video from Pyongyang on Friday recounting his experience on the ground.
“As far as we know, many people in Pyongyang have not been vaccinated, and medical and epidemic prevention facilities are in short supply,” reporter Zhang Cheng said in a Weibo post.
“Because the capital is closed, 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.”
At Saturday’s meeting, Kim inspected the country’s epidemic emergency measures and medical supplies. He also urged North Korean officials to learn from China the “advanced and rich quarantine results and experience they have already gained in their battle against the insidious infectious disease,” according to the Korean Central News Agency.
What about vaccination coverage in North Korea?
North Korea is not known to have imported any coronavirus vaccines – despite it being eligible for the global Covid-19 vaccine sharing programme, Covax.
Assuming most North Koreans are not immune, an outbreak in the country — which has limited testing capabilities, inadequate medical infrastructure and isolates itself from the outside world — could quickly become deadly.
Calls are growing for state leadership to provide access to vaccines.
“There is no evidence to prove that North Korea has enough vaccines to protect its population from Covid-19. However, it has rejected millions of doses of the AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines provided by the WHO-led Covax programme,” Amnesty International said. East Asia scholar Puram Jang, in a statement.
“With the first official news of the Covid-19 outbreak in the country, continuing on this path could cost many lives and would be an unreasonable failure to uphold the right to health.”
In February, Covax reportedly reduced the number of doses destined for North Korea because the country failed to arrange any shipments, according to Reuters.
A spokesperson for the Gavi Vaccine Alliance said Covax has moved on to “needs-based vaccinations allocations” and “is not currently committing to any size” to North Korea.
“In the event that the country decides to start an immunization program against Covid-19, vaccines can be provided based on the criteria of the Covax goals and technical considerations to enable the country to catch up with the international immunization goals,” the spokesperson said.
CNN’s Joshua Berlinger and Yeonjung Seo contributed to this report.