North Korea tally tops 1 million sick amid COVID-19 outbreak

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has criticized authorities for slow drug deliveries and mobilized the military to respond to a rise in suspected COVID-19 infections, as his country struggles to contain what he calls a “fever” that is said to have killed dozens of people and sickened almost a million others in the space of three days.

Last week, North Korea recognized a COVID-19 outbreak for the first time and imposed a nationwide lockdown. Since then, the death toll has reached 50 and more than 1.2 million are thought to be sick.

That’s a jump from last Friday, when six deaths were reported and 350,000 sick.

Kim acknowledged that the fast-spreading fever, most likely brought on by COVID-19, is causing “great upheaval” in the country, and outside experts say the true scale of the outbreak is likely far greater than what it is. which is described in state control. media.

Some suspect that North Korea downplayed his deaths or illnesses to shield Kim’s leadership from criticism. The North likely lacks test kits and other tools to detect virus carriers without symptoms or with mild symptoms, meaning several million people may already have been infected.

“When people die, the North Korean authorities will say they died from overwork or natural death, not from COVID-19,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. South. Nam said the North was likely downplaying the death toll to protect “the dignity of its supreme leader”.

In this photo from October 20, 2021, employees spray disinfectant as part of preventive measures against the Covid-19 coronavirus at the Yokjon department store in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Kim Won Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

Too late to vaccinate the whole population

While neighboring South Korea and China have offered to send medical supplies and other aid, experts say it is too late to vaccinate the North’s 26 million people.

The only realistic outside help, experts say, would be to offer limited supplies of vaccines to reduce deaths among high-risk groups, including the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions.

It is unclear if and when Kim would accept offers of outside help, as he has already rallied in unity at home to guard against the pandemic without resorting to foreign aid.

A passerby walks past a screen displaying an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wearing a face mask on a newscast in Tokyo on Friday, May 13. North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown last Thursday to control its first recognized COVID-19 outbreak. (Shuji Kajiyama/Associated Press)

State media did not specify how many fever cases were confirmed as COVID-19. Among the 50 deaths, North Korea has only officially identified one as a COVID-19 case so far.

North Korea is believed to rely primarily on isolating people with symptoms in shelters.

Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of South Korea’s Sejong Institute said the North’s limited number of test kits are likely mostly reserved for the ruling elite.

Failure to slow the virus could have disastrous consequences for North Korea, given its failing health system and the fact that its people would go unvaccinated. There is also malnutrition and chronic poverty.

North Korea imposed what it described as maximum preventive measures that restricted movement between cities and counties, and Kim ordered public health officials, teachers and others to identify the people with fever so that they can be quarantined.

On Sunday, more than 564,860 people were in quarantine, North Korean state media reported.

The number of infections could be three times higher

While it’s clear that COVID-19 is spreading at an alarming rate, there are questions about the accuracy of North Korea’s fever count.

Jung Jae-hun, professor of preventive medicine at South Korea’s Gachon University, said it was unlikely North Korean health workers would be able to give reliable daily updates, given the lack of tests and other resources.

Jung said they may be adding several days of cases to their one-day tally as a result of delays.

Cho Han Bum, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said North Korea’s fever totals appeared to be an “outright lie”.

“North Korea says about 390,000 more have fallen ill but only eight have died in the past day, while South Korea (Sunday) reported 25,000 new cases and 48 deaths,” it said. -he declares.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, said the actual number of COVID-19 infections in North Korea is likely at least three times higher than the number of COVID-19 patients. fever in North Korea due to under-reporting, poor health care and poorly computerized administrative networks.