North Korea announced 15 more deaths from “fever” on Sunday, just days after confirming the country’s first-ever Covid-19 cases and ordering widespread lockdowns.
The outbreak, which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has described as causing “grave upheaval,” has put the country’s healthcare system on the verge of collapse.
There are no Covid vaccinations, antiviral treatment medications, or mass-testing capabilities in North Korea.
While the country has maintained a strict coronavirus ban since the outbreak began, scientists have warned that major Omicron infections in neighboring nations meant Covid was just a matter of time.
Pyongyang is now reporting high numbers of new cases daily, despite deploying a “maximum emergency quarantine system” to restrict the disease’s spread across its unvaccinated populace.
Official state media KCNA on Sunday said 42 people had died since the outbreak’s beginning, with 820,620 cases and at least 324,550 receiving medical treatment.
“All provinces, cities, and counties of the country have been completely locked down, with working units, manufacturing units, and residential units walled off from one other,” according to the news agency.
On Thursday, North Korea announced that the extremely contagious Omicron type had been identified in the capital, with Kim ordering national lockdowns during an emergency Politburo meeting.
“The spread of malignant disease comes to be a great upheaval in our country,” Kim said Saturday.
— ‘Inaccurate testing’ —A large number of the deaths have been due to “a lack of knowledge and understanding of the stealth Omicron variant virus infection”, KCNA said, adding “urgent” measures were being taken to educate the public.
Sunday’s KCNA report did not specify whether the new cases and deaths tested positive for Covid-19, but experts say the country will struggle to screen and diagnose on a massive scale.
North Korea’s healthcare system ranked 193 out of 195 countries in a 2021 Johns Hopkins University survey.
“With the current very backward and inaccurate testing method — which diagnoses Covid-19 based on whether a person has a fever or not — it’s impossible for North Korea to detect asymptomatic infections and contain the outbreak,” said Cheong Seong-jang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute.
“With the continued spike in the number of Covid-19 infections, the number of deaths from it is expected to rise further,” he added.
Kim has said the country will “actively learn” from China’s pandemic management strategy, according to KCNA.
China, the world’s only major economy still maintaining a zero-Covid policy, is battling multiple Omicron outbreaks — with lockdowns in some major cities, including financial hub Shanghai, sparking increasing public frustration.
North Korea has previously turned down offers of Covid vaccines from China and the World Health Organization’s Covax program, but since the epidemic was reported, both Beijing and Seoul have made new offers of assistance.
Despite the public health catastrophe, new satellite imagery shows North Korea has begun work on a long-abandoned nuclear facility.
The US and South Korea have warned that Kim is planning another nuclear test, his regime’s seventh, and that it may happen at any time.
Analysts have cautioned Kim that he may accelerate nuclear test plans in order to divert attention away from the devastating coronavirus outbreak in North Korea.
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