Suspected COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea nears 2 million

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea reported 262,270 more suspected cases of COVID-19 Thursday as its number of pandemic cases neared 2 million, a week after the country acknowledged the outbreak and strove to curb infections in its unvaccinated population.

The country is also trying to prevent its fragile economy from deteriorating further, but the outbreak could be worse than officially reported as the country lacks virus testing and other healthcare resources and may be underestimating deaths. to soften the political impact on authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un. .

North Korea’s antivirus headquarters reported a single additional death, bringing its number to 63, which experts say is abnormally small compared to the suspected number of coronavirus infections.

The official Korean Central News Agency said that more than 1.98 million people have fallen ill with a fever since the end of April. Most are believed to have COVID-19, although only a few infections with the omicron variant have been confirmed. At least 740,160 people are in quarantine, the news agency reported.

North Korea’s outbreak comes amid a provocative spate of weapons demonstrations, including its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile in nearly five years in March. Experts do not believe that the COVID-19 outbreak will stop Kim’s risky policy of pressuring the United States to accept the idea of ​​the North as a nuclear power and negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength.

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 on May 12.
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 on May 12.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday that US intelligence shows there is a “genuine possibility” of North Korea conducting another ballistic missile test or nuclear test around the Trump visit. President Joe Biden to South Korea and Japan beginning later this week.

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 on May 12 and has described rapid spread ever since. Kim called the outbreak a “major upheaval,” chiding officials for allowing the virus to spread and restricting the movement of people and supplies between cities and regions.

Workers mobilized to find people with suspected symptoms of COVID-19 who were then sent to quarantine, the main method of curbing the outbreak as North Korea has a shortage of medical supplies and intensive care units that have reduced hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 in other nations.

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

Despite the large number of sick people and efforts to curb the outbreak, state media describe large groups of workers continuing to gather at farms, mining facilities, power plants and construction sites. Experts say North Korea cannot afford a lockdown that would hamper production in an economy already broken by mismanagement, crippling US-led sanctions over Kim’s nuclear weapons ambitions and pandemic border closures.

North Korea must also work urgently to protect its crops from a drought that hit during the crucial rice-planting season, a worrying development in a country that has long suffered from food insecurity. State media also said that Kim’s trophy building projects, including the construction of 10,000 new houses in Hwasong city, are being “driven forward as scheduled”.

“All sectors of the national economy are increasing production to the maximum while strictly observing the anti-epidemic measures taken by the party and the state,” the Korean Central News Agency reported.

Workplace virus controls include separating workers by their job classifications and quarantining worker units at construction sites and in its key metal, chemical, electrical and coal industries, KCNA said.

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 Korea to provide treatment to the already large number of people with COVID-19. Deaths are possibly approaching the tens of thousands, considering the size of their caseloads, and international assistance would be crucial, Park said.

An employee of the Songyo knitwear factory in Songyo district disinfects the work floor in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, May 18, 2022, after Kim Jong Un said on Tuesday that his party would deal with the outbreak. of the country under state emergency.  (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)
An employee of the Songyo knitwear factory in Songyo district disinfects the work floor in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, May 18, 2022, after Kim Jong Un said on Tuesday that his party would deal with the outbreak. of the country under state emergency. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)

“The best way to prevent these deaths is to treat with antivirals like Paxlovid,” which would significantly reduce the risk of serious illness or death, Park said. “This is much faster and easier to implement than sending ventilators to build ICU capacity.”

Other experts say providing a small number of vaccines for high-risk groups such as the elderly would prevent deaths, although mass vaccinations would be impossible at this stage for the population of 26 million.

However, it is unclear if North Korea would accept outside help. It has already rejected vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, and the nation’s leaders have expressed confidence that the country can overcome the crisis on its own.

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. The South Korean government had said it could not confirm media reports that North Korea flew planes to bring in emergency supplies from China this week.

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