In North Korea, the explosion of Covid cases raises fears of the worst

In North Korea, the explosion of Covid cases raises fears of the worst

COVID – A catastrophic situation on the horizon for North Korea? Pyongyang announced this Friday, May 13, its first death from Covid-19, specifying that the virus has already spread throughout the country, a “fever” having “spread explosively throughout the country from the end of April,” according to the official KCNA news agency.

North Korea had so far boasted of its ability to keep the virus at bay, and had not reported a single confirmed case of Covid-19 to the World Health Organization. The country had been one of the first to close its borders in January 2020 after the virus emerged in neighboring China and its strict isolation policy initially appeared to keep the virus at bay for two years according to official statements. . An assertion regularly questioned by several experts.

For Lina Yoon, senior researcher on Korea at Human Rights Watch quoted by The Guardian, the fact that the regime admits this wave of the virus within the country is “extremely worrying”. “The public health situation must be serious,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. A Covid-19 outbreak could indeed prove disastrous for North Korea.

One of the worst healthcare systems in the world

First, the healthcare system is officially one of the worst in the world, ranked 193rd out of 195 countries, according to a 2021 Johns Hopkins University survey. According to authorities, healthcare is free for all, but NGOs say people have long had to pay for essential medical services, usually in cigarettes or alcohol.

Patients’ families have to buy drugs on the black market, and doctors are forced to practice clandestine care to earn a living, notes Sokeel Park of the organization Liberty in North Korea.

“Doctors’ incomes are certainly not low by North Korean standards, but even then it’s hard to buy a kilo of rice,” researcher Choi Jung-hun told AFP.

There are no hospitals equipped with intensive care units in rural areas or small towns, where the majority of the country’s 25 million people live, adds this defector who worked as a doctor in the North. According to the researchers, the country also does not have quarantine centers equipped with negative atmospheric pressure systems, nor cold storage systems necessary for the distribution of mRNA vaccines.

An unvaccinated population…

Relying on its draconian measures against the Covid, Pyongyang has apparently considered that it was not necessary to vaccinate its population.

Last year, the country rejected an offer of three million doses of Chinese vaccine, suggesting that they be given to “countries that need them most”. He also turned down an offer from Russia and the AstraZeneca vaccine offered under the WHO’s Covax program.

In recent hours, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s new administration in South Korea has offered to send vaccines to the North, but admitted it has not yet discussed it with Pyongyang. According to the WHO, North Korea and Eritrea are the only countries not to have launched a vaccination campaign.

North Korea’s failing health system would likely struggle to help people suffering from vaccine side effects, which could explain the rejection of vaccine donations, experts say.

… And in no condition to fight the virus

Finally, information on the health of the population is patchy, but the World Health Organization said in 2018 that non-communicable diseases like diabetes are responsible for 84% of deaths in North Korea.

Added to this is widespread malnutrition, caused in particular by a “food crisis” made official by state media last year, and a shortage of medicines.

“Most North Koreans are chronically malnourished,” says Lina Yoon, researcher for Human Rights Watch, adding that after two years of border blockades, “there is hardly any medicine left.”

Malnutrition is also thought to affect the quality of an individual’s immune response to vaccination – meaning the country could also need significant food aid to be successful in its vaccination campaign.

“Most North Koreans suffer from chronic malnutrition and are not vaccinated, there are practically no more medicines in the country and the health infrastructure is incapable of dealing with this pandemic”, summarizes Lina Yoon.

Will Pyongyang ask for international help?

China, South Korea and the WHO immediately offered support, with the new government in Seoul saying it is ready to send vaccines. But Kim Jong Un’s regime, which test-fired three banned ballistic missiles hours after the first Covid cases were announced, seems unwilling to grasp the outstretched hand.

Yet experts believe they may soon have no choice. By publicly announcing a massive outbreak in English-language media, the regime sends an “indirect message that the North may seek vaccine assistance from the United States or international organizations in the future,” Yang said. Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

In the meantime, the country has said it is going into “maximum emergency epidemic prevention” mode. The KCNA agency said in the aftermath that Kim Jong Un went to the national epidemic prevention headquarters where he “learned about the spread of Covid-19 throughout the country”.

At present, the official report and therefore without possible verification, reports six people who died, victims of “fever”, including one who tested positive for the BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron, indicated KCNA. “More than 350,000 people presented with fever in a short time and at least 162,200 of them are completely cured”, detailed the same source. “On May 12 alone, some 18,000 people had fever across the country and, at present, 187,800 people are isolated and treated”.

See also on The HuffPost: Despite “zero covid” detected, North Korean television does not skimp on prevention