Number of suspected COVID-19 cases in North Korea nears 2 million

North Korea reported an additional 262,270 cases of people with suspected COVID-19 symptoms on Thursday as its pandemic caseload neared two million – a week after the country acknowledged the outbreak and worked to contain it. slowing the rate of infections despite the lack of health care resources.

The country is also trying to prevent its fragile economy from deteriorating, but the outbreak could be worse than officially reported due to limited resources for virus testing and the possibility that North Korea is deliberately underreporting. the deaths to mitigate the political impact on authoritarian leader Kim Jong. -UN.

North Korea’s antivirus headquarters reported a single death in the 24 hours as of 6 p.m. Wednesday to bring its death toll to 63, which experts say is unusually low compared to the suspected number of infections.

The official Korean Central News Agency reported that more than 1.98 million people have fallen ill with febrile symptoms since late April, believed to be mostly infections with the Omicron variant coronavirus, although the country has not confirmed. only a small number of cases of infection due to rarity. of trials. At least 740,160 people are in quarantine, the news agency reported.

Omicron variant detected

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 last Thursday, saying tests of an unknown number of people in the capital Pyongyang showed that they were infected. with the Omicron variant.

WATCH | North Korea confirms first deaths from COVID:

North Korea confirms first COVID-19 deaths days after admitting first outbreak

Six people have died and 350,000 have been treated for a fever that has spread “explosively” across North Korea, according to state media. One of the six people who died has been confirmed to be infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Kim called the outbreak a “great upheaval” and imposed what the country described as maximum preventive measures that strictly restricted the movement of people and supplies between cities and regions.

It has mobilized more than a million workers to find and quarantine people suffering from fever and other suspected symptoms of COVID-19. Thousands of soldiers have been ordered to help transport medicine to the capital of Pyongyang.

State media images showed health workers dressed in white and orange hazmat suits keeping city streets closed, disinfecting buildings and streets and delivering food and other supplies to apartment buildings.

But large groups of workers continue to gather at farms, mining facilities, power plants and construction sites to boost production because Kim demanded that economic targets be met, the Central News Agency reported. Korean.

Economic considerations

Experts said Kim could not afford to cripple the country as it would trigger an additional shock to a shattered economy damaged by mismanagement, crippling US-led sanctions against his nuclear weapons ambitions and the closing of borders in the event of a pandemic.

The country faces urgent pressure to protect crops amid an ongoing drought that has hit the country during a crucial rice planting season, a worrying development in a country that has long suffered from food insecurity.

North Korean state media also said Kim’s trophy construction projects, including the construction of 10,000 new homes in the town of Hwasong, were “propelled as planned”.

“All sectors of the national economy are ramping up production to the maximum while strictly adhering to anti-epidemic measures taken by the party and the state,” the Korean Central News Agency reported, referring to travel restrictions and virus controls in the workplace, including keeping workers separated into groups by their job classifications.

The news agency added: “Units are reasonably quarantined at major construction sites where our party’s cherished desire comes to fruition and in key industrial sectors including the metallurgical, chemical, electrical and coal industries. And construction and production are steadily ramping up, with priority given to anti-epidemic work.”

Case growth could slow

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 slow due to the strengthening of preventive measures. .

Members of the North Korean military provide medicine to residents of a pharmacy, in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo on Wednesday. (Kyodo/Reuters)

But it will be difficult for North Korea to provide treatment for the already high number of people with COVID-19 and deaths could approach a scale of tens of thousands, given the size of the country’s caseload, it said. said Park.

It is unclear whether North Korea’s admission of the outbreak reflects a willingness to receive outside help. The country shunned millions of vaccines donated by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, likely due to international surveillance requirements needed to receive the shots.

Kim Tae-hyo, deputy national security adviser to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, told reporters on Thursday that North Korea had ignored offers of help from South Korea and the United States to contain the outbreak. ‘epidemic.

Experts have said North Korea may be more willing to accept help from China, its main ally.