Key points

  • No sign of rigorous testing or treatment campaign
  • Learn from China’s success in battling COVID – Kim
  • About 280,810 people being treated with symptoms

Seoul: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said on Saturday the spread of COVID-19 had thrust his country into “great turmoil” and called for an all-out battle to overcome the outbreak, as 21 daily deaths were reported among people with fever.

The isolated country this week acknowledged that it is facing a COVID outbreak for the first time, imposing a nationwide lockdown. But there was no sign of a rigorous testing or treatment campaign in North Korea’s rudimentary healthcare system.

Kim Jong-un attends a meeting on anti-virus strategies in Pyongyang on May 14.Credit:KCNA via AP

“The spread of the malignant epidemic is a great turmoil to fall on our country since the founding,” Kim told an emergency meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, according to state news agency KCNA.

“But if we don’t lose focus in implementing epidemic policy and maintain strong organisation power and control based on single-minded unity of the party and the people and strengthen our epidemic battle, we can more than overcome the crisis.”

The numbers probably represent a fraction of total cases, given North Korea’s limited testing capabilities, and could lead to thousands of deaths in one of only two countries without a vaccination campaign, experts have said.

The outbreak could also deepen a dire food crisis, with the lockdown hampering anti-drought efforts and mobilisation of labour.

A teacher takes the body temperature of a schoolgirl before entering a school in Pyongyang late last year.,Credit:AP

The Workers’ Party meeting heard reports of about 280,810 people being treated and 27 deaths since a fever of unidentified origins was reported starting in late April, KCNA said.

State media did not say whether the new deaths were due to COVID. One death had been confirmed from the Omicron variant, KCNA said on Friday.

Since late April, 524,440 people have shown signs of fever including 174,440 new cases on Friday, KCNA said. About 243,630 have been treated but KCNA has not said how many people have been tested or confirmed the total number of COVID cases.

North Korea has been testing about 1,400 people a week, according to Harvard Medical School’s Kee Park, who has worked on healthcare projects in the country, not nearly enough to survey the hundreds of thousands of people with symptoms.

Kim told the meeting the crisis had been caused by the incompetence and irresponsibility of party organisations but transmission was not uncontrollable and the country must have faith in its battle to overcome the crisis in the shortest possible period.

The meeting also heard a report from epidemic control officials that “in most cases, human casualties were caused by negligence including drug overdose due to lack of knowledge of treatment methods”.

Kim offered to donate his family’s medical supplies for families experiencing hardship “with his resolution to always share the destiny with the people”, KCNA said.

China and Russia are among countries offering help with vaccines, but Pyongyang has not publicly sought assistance.


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