North Korea mobilises military to help fight Covid as it reports another fever surge

The Asian country lacks testing supplies

People at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, watch a news programme showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on May 16. AP
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North Korea has reported another large jump in illnesses believed to be Covid-19, as military officers are deployed to distribute medicine.

State media said on Tuesday that North Korea’s anti-virus headquarters had reported 269,510 people suffering with fevers. Six people had died.

That raises the country's deaths to 56, after more than 1.48 million people became ill with fevers since late April.

North Korea lacks testing supplies to confirm coronavirus infections in large numbers, and the report didn’t say how many of the cases were Covid-19.

Experts said that given North Korea's limited testing capabilities, the numbers released probably represent a small fraction of the infections, Reuters reported.

The official Korean Central News Agency said the military had deployed officers from its medical units to help with the transport of medicine to pharmacies in Pyongyang, which began to stay open 24 hours a day to deal with the virus crisis.

KCNA said the army units “expressed their will to convey the precious medicines, elixir of life, associated with the great love of Kim Jong Un for the people to the Pyongyangites”.

Last week, KCNA reported that health authorities had set up more epidemic prevention posts and urgently transported medical supplies to hospitals and clinics, while senior officials had donated reserve medicines.

A “large proportion” of the deaths have been due to people “careless in taking drugs due to the lack of knowledge and understanding of stealth Omicron variant virus infection disease and its correct treatment method,” the report said.

North Korea’s virus response has been to mostly isolate people with symptoms at shelters and, as of Tuesday, at least 663,910 people were in quarantine.

'Explosive' outbreak

Since acknowledging a Covid-19 outbreak last week, North Korea said “an explosively spreading fever” has killed 56 people and sickened about 1.5 million.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for a thorough lockdown of cities and counties and said workplaces should be isolated by units to prevent the virus from spreading, the KCNA said.

Analysts told Associated Press that fever cases may be underreported by officials who worry about punishment, while some people don’t report symptoms because they fear the strict quarantine measures.

“Kim Jong Un is in a dilemma, a really huge dilemma,” said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

“If he accepts US or western assistance, that can shake the self-reliance stance that he has steadfastly maintained and public confidence in him could be weakened.”

The country shunned millions of vaccines from the UN-backed Covax distribution programme, probably due to international monitoring requirements attached to those shots.

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South Korea has offered to send vaccines, medicine and health personnel, but North Korea has so far ignored the proposal amid rivalry over nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

Some experts say Mr Kim’s praise of China’s pandemic response during a virus meeting last week may indicate that he would be more willing to receive help from its main ally.

Experts say the only realistic outside help would be offering limited supplies of vaccines to reduce deaths among high-risk groups, as it’s too late to stop a broad spread of the virus across North Korea's population.

“With the country yet to initiate Covid-19 vaccination, there is risk that the virus may spread rapidly among the masses unless curtailed with immediate and appropriate measures,” Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the World Health Organisation’s regional director for South-east Asia, said.

He added that the WHO is ready to provide North Korea with technical support to increase testing and with essential medicines and medical supplies.

North Korea had previously claimed no confirmed cases of the virus, and is one of only two countries in the world that has yet to begin a Covid-19 vaccination campaign, according to the WHO. Eritrea is also yet to administer vaccinations.

Its self-imposed lockdowns have slowed trade to a trickle and raised concerns about food shortages or other hardships, aid organisations have said.

Agencies have contributed to this report.

Updated: May 17, 2022, 7:54 AM