North Korea reports 6 deaths after confirming COVID-19 outbreak
North Korea said Friday that six people died and hundreds of thousands of others fell ill amid an explosive spread of fever across the nation, a day after it acknowledged a COVID-19 outbreak in a largely unvaccinated population for the first time since the pandemic began.
The true scale of the coronavirus outbreak in North Korea is still unclear, as North Korea — which lacks COVID-19 diagnostic kits and other medical equipment — said it hasn’t determined why the fever has happened. But some experts say the outbreak can have major consequences because North Korea’s healthcare infrastructure remains broken and many among its unvaccinated population are malnourished.
The official Korean Central News Agency said Friday that more than 350,000 people have been treated for fever that has “explosively” spread nationwide since late April and that 162,200 of them have recovered. It said that 18,000 people were newly found with fever symptoms on Thursday alone.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the cases were COVID-19 as the news agency, or KCNA, said the cause of the fever couldn’t be identified.
KCNA said one of the six people who died was confirmed to have been infected with the Omicron variant. It said that 187,800 people in North Korea are being isolated for treatment.
North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown Thursday to control its first acknowledged COVID-19 outbreak after maintaining a widely doubted claim for more than two years that it completely fended off the virus that has spread to nearly every place in the world.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un berates top officials for coronavirus-prevention failures that have caused an unspecified ‘great crisis.’
State media said tests of virus samples collected Sunday from an unspecified number of people with fevers in the capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the Omicron variant. The reports did not specify the number of cases.
Experts say a failure to slow coronavirus infections could have serious consequences because the country has a poor healthcare system and its 26 million people are believed to be mostly unvaccinated.
KCNA said leader Kim Jong Un was briefed over the fever during his visit to state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters on Thursday and criticized officials for failing to prevent “a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system.”
He said the spread of the fever has been centered in Pyongyang and nearby areas and underscored the importance of isolating all work, production and residential units from one another while providing residents with every convenience in curbing the spread of the “malicious virus.”
“It is the most important challenge and supreme task facing our party to reverse the immediate public health crisis situation at an early date, restore the stability of epidemic prevention and protect the health and well-being of our people,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying.
A U.N. investigator says North Koreans living under strict pandemic restrictions are facing a growing food crisis, and the most vulnerable children and elderly people in the isolated nation are at risk of starvation.
Describing its anti-coronavirus campaign as a matter of “national existence,” North Korea had severely restricted cross-border traffic and trade for the last two years and is even believed to have ordered troops to shoot on sight any trespassers who cross its borders.
The border closures further battered an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile program, pushing Kim to perhaps the toughest moment of his rule since he took power in 2011.
North Korea in January tentatively reopened railroad freight traffic between its border town of Sinuiju and China’s Dandong, but China announced a halt to the trade last month amid a spread of COVID-19 in its border areas.
South Korea’s spy agency tells lawmakers that North Korea executed 2 people and locked down its capital as part of frantic anti-coronavirus steps.
Hours after confirming the outbreak Thursday, North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea, South Korea and Japan said, in what possibly was a show of strength after Kim’s public acknowledgment.
It was the North’s 16th round of missile launches this year as it pursues brinksmanship aimed at forcing the United States to accept the country as a nuclear power and negotiate sanctions relief and other concessions from a position of strength.
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