Suspected COVID-19 cases in North Korea approach 2 million

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Thursday reported 262,270 more cases of people with suspected COVID-19 symptoms as its number of pandemic cases neared 2 million, a week after the country recognized the outbreak and worked to reduce the rate of infections despite a lack of health care resources.

The country is also trying to keep its fragile economy from deteriorating, but the outbreak could be worse than officially reported due to a shortage of resources for virus testing and the possibility that North Korea could be deliberately underestimating the deaths to soften the political impact on authoritarian leader Kim Jong. United Nations.

North Korea’s antivirus headquarters reported a single death in the 24 hours to 6 p.m. Wednesday to bring the death toll to 63, which experts say is abnormally small compared to the suspected number of infections.

The Korean Central News Agency reported that more than 1.98 million people have fallen ill with feverish symptoms since late April, which are mostly believed to be infections with the omicron variant of the coronavirus, although the country has only confirmed a small number of cases of infection due to shortages. of tests At least 740,160 people are in quarantine, the news agency reported.

After maintaining a dubious claim that it had kept the virus out of the country for two and a half years, North Korea acknowledged its first COVID-19 infections last Thursday, saying tests of an unspecified number of people in the capital , Pyongyang, showed that they were infected. with the omicron variant.

Kim called the outbreak a “major upheaval” and imposed what the country described as maximum preventive measures that strictly restricted the movement of people and supplies between cities and regions.

It mobilized more than 1 million workers to find and quarantine people with fevers and other suspected symptoms of COVID-19. Thousands of troops were ordered to help transport medicine in the capital of Pyongyang.

State media footage showed health workers in white and orange hazmat suits policing closed city streets, disinfecting buildings and streets and delivering food and other supplies to apartment blocks.

But large groups of workers continue to gather at farms, mining facilities, power plants and construction sites to spur production because Kim has demanded that economic goals be met, the Korean Central News Agency reported.

Pundits have said that Kim cannot afford to shut down the country because that would trigger a further shock to a broken economy damaged by mismanagement, crippling US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons ambitions and border closures over the pandemic.

The country faces an urgent push to protect crops amid an ongoing drought that hit the country during a crucial rice planting season, a worrying development in a country that has long suffered from food insecurity. North Korean state media also said that Kim’s trophy-building projects, including the construction of 10,000 new houses in the city of Hwasong, are being “driven forward as scheduled.”

“All sectors of the national economy are ramping up production to the maximum while strictly observing the anti-epidemic measures taken by the party and the state,” the Korean Central News Agency reported, referring to travel restrictions and virus checks in the country. workplaces. including keeping workers separated into groups by their job classifications.

The news agency added: “Units are in reasonable quarantine at major construction sites where our party’s cherished wish is coming true and in key industrial sectors including metal, chemical, electricity and coal industries. And construction and production are constantly speeding up, giving priority to anti-epidemic work.”

Kee Park, a global health specialist at Harvard Medical School who has worked on health care projects in North Korea, said the number of new cases in the country should start to decline due to strengthened preventive measures.

But it will be a challenge for North Kore to treat the already large number of people with COVID-19, with deaths possibly approaching a scale of tens of thousands, considering the size of the country’s cases, Park said.

It is unclear whether North Korea’s admission of the outbreak communicates a willingness to receive outside help. The country has refused millions of vaccine injections offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, likely due to the international monitoring requirements that are required to receive the vaccines.

Kim Tae-hyo, deputy national security adviser to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, told reporters Thursday that North Korea has ignored offers of help from South Korea and the United States to contain the outbreak.

Experts have said North Korea may be more willing to accept help from China, its main ally.

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