SEOUL (AP) — North Korea on Saturday reported a significant rise in suspected coronavirus infections and deaths as it struggled to contain its first reported outbreak, which the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said could be “the largest crisis since the founding of our nation.
State media said an additional 174,400 people had symptoms, such as a fever, that could be due to Covid-19, nearly 10 times more than the 18,000 cases reported on Friday. It also said 21 more people had died in connection with the outbreak, bringing the country’s total to 27. But the reports did not say how many of the new infections or deaths were definitively linked to Covid-19 through testing.
“North Korea reports only ‘people with a fever’ because it doesn’t have enough test kits,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korea Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “Some of the people with fever may not be actual patients, but there could be many more cases among asymptomatic people without fever. Therefore, the actual number of infected people is likely to be higher than that announced by the North.”
Most of the newly reported deaths were caused by “drug overdose and other negligence caused by lack of knowledge in scientific treatment,” North Korean health officials said during a high-level meeting on Saturday. At the meeting, Kim criticized health officials from North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party for “incompetence” and “irresponsibility,” the state-run Korea Central News Agency said.
After insisting for years that it had no cases of Covid-19 and rejecting offers of humanitarian aid, North Korea admitted on Thursday that an outbreak had started in late April. The country has reported a total of 524,400 people with Covid-like symptoms since the end of last month. State media said on Saturday that 243,630 had fully recovered and 280,810 remained in quarantine.
Health experts have long raised concerns about the North’s ability to combat a large coronavirus outbreak due to its frazzled public health system and low vaccination rate. International health organizations and the South Korean government have said they were ready to send vaccines, therapeutics and other help if the North requests it.
State media reports on Saturday did not indicate whether the North would consider accepting such assistance, but suggested a malfunctioning public health system.
Mr. Kim was quoted as telling health officials to learn from “the disease control policies, achievements, and experiences of advanced nations,” in particular the “abundant epidemiological achievements and experiences of the Chinese Communist Party and its people.” ”.
North Korea appeared to be following its ally China’s playbook of extreme Covid restrictions when it declared a “maximum emergency” this week, ordering all cities and counties in the nation of 25 million to close. He also ordered them to isolate “every work unit, production unit, and residential unit from each other.”
The government said it was studying how to mobilize “all national means and resources” so that patients receive the medicines they need.
At the meeting on Saturday, Kim said North Korea was not seeing “any uncontrollable spread of the virus between regions,” only infections within closed areas and units. He also said that most of the reported symptoms had been mild.
Mr. Kim said that while “the spread of the malicious virus may be the greatest crisis since the founding of our nation,” it could be overcome if the Workers’ Party and the public were “united as one,” according to state media. reports.