North Korea reports 15 more suspected COVID-19 deaths

North Korea reports 15 more suspected COVID-19 deaths

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea has confirmed 15 more deaths and hundreds of thousands more patients with fevers as it mobilizes more than a million health workers and other workers to try to quell the country’s first COVID-19 outbreak, reports said state media Sunday.

After more than two years of maintaining a widely disputed claim of being coronavirus-free, North Korea announced Thursday that it had found its first COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began.

It has said a fever has spread “explosively” across the country since late April, but hasn’t revealed exactly how many COVID-19 cases it has found. Some experts say North Korea lacks the diagnostic kits needed to test large numbers of suspected COVID-19 patients.

The additional deaths reported on Sunday brought the country’s reported fever-related deaths to 42. The official Korean Central News Agency also reported that another 296,180 people were counted with fevers, bringing the reported total to 820,620.

The outbreak has raised concerns about a humanitarian crisis in North Korea as it is believed most of the country’s 26 million people are unvaccinated against the coronavirus and the public health system has been in shambles for decades. Some experts say North Korea could suffer large death tolls if it doesn’t receive prompt shipments of vaccines, medicines and other medical supplies from outside.

“Without COVID-19 testing kits, North Korea is resorting to body temperature checks to guess infection. But with such a very inferior and inaccurate testing method, it is impossible to find asymptomatic virus carriers and control virus outbreaks,” said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

“As (suspected) COVID-19 infections in North Korea explode, the death toll is expected to keep rising,” Cheong added.

North Korea has imposed a nationwide lockdown to fight the virus since Thursday. That could further weigh on the country’s fragile economy, which has suffered in recent years from sharply reduced foreign trade caused by pandemic-related border closures punishing UN economic sanctions over its nuclear program and its own mismanagement, observers say.

During a meeting on Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described the outbreak as a historic “great upheaval” and called for unity between the government and the people to stabilize the outbreak as soon as possible.

KCNA said Sunday more than 1.3 million people were involved in works to screen and treat sick people and raise public awareness of hygiene. It said anyone with a fever and others with abnormal symptoms would be quarantined and treated. KCNA said the heightened pandemic response includes setting up more quarantine facilities, urgently transporting medical supplies to hospitals and stepping up disinfection efforts.

“All the provinces, cities and counties in the country have been in full lockdown since the morning of May 12, and work units, production units and housing units have been separated from each other, and strict and intensive investigations of all people are being carried out,” KCNA said.

Of those with symptoms, 496,030 have recovered, while 324,4550 were still being treated as of Saturday, KCNA reported, citing the country’s Emergency Prevention Center.

According to state media reports, Kim and other top North Korean officials are donating their private reserve medicines to help the country’s fight against the pandemic. During Saturday’s meeting, Kim expressed optimism that the country could bring the outbreak under control, saying most transmissions occur in communities that are isolated from one another and do not spread from region to region.

Despite the outbreak, Kim has ordered officials to proceed with planned economic, construction and other government projects, indicating authorities are not asking people to confine themselves at home. Hours after admitting its virus outbreak on Thursday, North Korea even fired ballistic missiles at sea in a continuation of its latest series of weapons tests.

KCNA said Kim, accompanied by senior lawmakers, visited a funeral home set up for senior official Yang Hyong Sop, who died a day earlier, on Saturday to offer condolences and meet bereaved relatives. A separate KCNA filing said Sunday that officials and workers in the Northeast were launching initiatives to prevent an expected spring drought from affecting crop yields and quality.

South Korea and China have offered to send vaccines, medical supplies and other supplies to North Korea, but Pyongyang has not publicly responded to the offers. North Korea had previously rejected millions of vaccine doses offered by the United Nations-backed COVAX distribution program amid speculation that it was concerned about potential vaccine side effects or international surveillance requirements related to those vaccinations.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday the United States supports international relief efforts but has no plans to share its vaccine supplies with the North. The North Korean virus outbreak could still be a major topic of discussion when President Joe Biden visits Seoul later this week for a summit with newly installed South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

South Korea’s former spy chief Park Jie-won wrote on Facebook on Friday that in May 2021, as then-director of National Intelligence, he proposed that Washington send 60 million vaccine doses to North Korea via COVAX as humanitarian aid. He said there were later talks at the UN and the Vatican to also ship 60 million doses to North Korea, but such help was never realized as no formal offers were made to North Korea.

Park said he hoped North Korea would be quick to accept Yoon’s offers of help, although he doubted the North would.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.