North Korea says its Covid epidemic is spreading rapidly

SEOUL – North Korea reported a dramatic increase in suspected coronavirus infections and deaths on Saturday as it struggled to contain its first reported outbreak, which the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said may be “the biggest crisis since. foundation of our nation “.

State media said 174,400 other people had symptoms, such as fever, that could be due to Covid-19, nearly a tenfold jump from the 18,000 of these reported cases on Fridays. It also said that another 21 people had died in connection with the outbreak, bringing the country’s total to 27. But the reports did not say how many of the new infections or deaths had surely been linked to Covid-19 through testing.

“North Korea only reports ‘people with fever’ because they don’t have enough test kits,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korea Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. they may not be real patients, but there may be many more cases among asymptomatic people without fever. So the actual number of infected people will probably be greater than announced by the North ”.

Most of the recently reported deaths were caused by “drug overdoses and other negligence caused by lack of knowledge of scientific treatment,” North Korean health officials said at a high-level meeting Saturday. During the meeting, Mr. Kim criticized health officials from the ruling Northern Workers’ Party for “incompetence” and “irresponsibility,” the central Korean state news agency said.

After insisting for years that he had no cases of Covid-19 e refusing humanitarian aid offers, North Korea admitted Thursday that an outbreak had begun in late April. The country has reported a total of 524,400 people with Covid-like symptoms since late last month. State media said on Saturday that 243,630 had fully recovered and 280,810 were still in quarantine.

Health experts have long expressed concern about the North’s ability to fight a major coronavirus outbreak due to its unstable public health system and low vaccination rate. International health organizations and the South Korean government have said they are ready to ship vaccines, therapies and other aid if the North requests it.

State media reports on Saturday did not indicate whether the North would consider accepting such assistance, but did suggest a malfunction in the public health system.

Mr. Kim was quoted as telling health officials to learn from the “disease control policies, achievements and experiences of advanced nations”, especially the “abundant epidemiological findings and experiences of the Chinese Communist Party and its people” .

North Korea appeared to be following its Chinese ally’s playbook on Covid’s extreme restrictions when this week it declared a “maximum emergency”, ordering all cities and counties in the nation of 25 million people to close. He also ordered them to isolate “every business unit, production unit and residential unit from each other”.

The government said it was studying how to mobilize “all national means and resources” to provide patients with the medicines they need.

During the meeting on Saturday, Mr. Kim said that North Korea is not seeing “any uncontrollable spread of the virus between regions,” only infections within blocked areas and units. He also stated that most of the symptoms reported had been mild.

Mr. Kim said that although “the spread of the harmful virus may be the biggest crisis since our nation’s founding,” it could be overcome if the Workers’ Party and the public were “united as one,” according to state media reports.