North Korea announces first Covid deaths amid ‘explosive’ outbreak

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’s BA.2 subvariant, state media KCNA reported on Friday.

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

“A fever, the cause of which could not be identified, has spread explosively across the country since the end of April,” the newspaper said. “As of now, up to 187,800 people are isolated.”

An outbreak of Covid-19 could prove disastrous for North Korea. The country’s decrepit health infrastructure is unlikely to be up to the task of treating large numbers of patients with a highly contagious disease, and the country is not known to have imported any coronavirus vaccines.

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

North Korea declares

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

“Reversing the immediate public health crisis situation is our party’s foremost challenge and supreme task,” Kim said, according to KCNA.

After a meeting of the country’s powerful political bureau on Thursday, North Korea put all cities under lockdown and quarantined “people with fevers or abnormal symptoms,” KCNA said.

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

“As far as we know, not many people have been vaccinated in Pyongyang, and medical and disease prevention facilities are scarce,” reporter Zang Qing said in a Weibo post.

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

On Thursday, China said it was ready to help North Korea fight Covid-19.

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

“As comrades, neighbors and friends, China stands ready to give full support to the DPRK in its fight against the epidemic,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a briefing.

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

Zero vaccines could spell disaster

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

Covax reportedly reduced the number of doses allocated to North Korea in February because the country had failed to arrange shipments, according to Reuters.

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

Demands are mounting for the country’s leadership 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 has turned down millions of doses of AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines offered by the WHO-led COVAX program,” Amnesty International East Asia researcher Boram Jang said 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 a ruthless violation of the right to health.”

From CNN, Philip Wang contributed.

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