North Korea confirms 21 new deaths in battle against COVID-19

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Saturday reported 21 new deaths and 174,440 more people with fever symptoms as the country works to slow the spread of COVID-19 among the unvaccinated population.

The new deaths and cases, which were as of Friday, rose to 27 deaths and 524,440 illnesses since late April amid a rapid spread of fever. North Korea said 243,630 people had recovered and 280,810 people were in quarantine. State media did not specify how many of the fevers and deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 infections.

The country on Thursday imposed what it described as maximum preventive measures after it confirmed the first COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. It previously held on for more than two years to a widely questioned claim of perfect recording of the virus that has spread to almost every place in the world.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described the outbreak on Saturday at a meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo as a historic “great upheaval” and called for unity between the government and the population to stabilize the outbreak as soon as possible.

Officials at the meeting mainly discussed ways to quickly distribute medical supplies that the country has released from its emergency reserves, the official Korean Central News Agency of Pyongyang said. In a report presented to the Politburo, the Northern Epidemic Bureau blamed most of the deaths on “mistakes such as drug overuse, devoid of scientific medical treatment.”

Kim, who said he donated some of his private drug supplies to help the anti-virus campaign, expressed optimism that the country could get the outbreak under control, saying most of the transfers take place within communities that are isolated from one another and not located. spread from region to region.

He called on officials to learn lessons from other countries’ successful pandemic responses and chose an example in China, the North’s main ally.

However, China is under pressure to change its so-called “zero-COVID” strategy, which has brought major cities to a standstill as it struggles to slow down its fast-moving omicron variant.

North Korea has imposed measures since Thursday to restrict the movement of people and supplies between cities and provinces, but descriptions of the measures by state media indicate that people are not house-bound.

Experts say failure to control the spread of COVID-19 could have devastating consequences in North Korea, given the country’s poor health care system and the fact that the 26 million people are largely unvaccinated.

Tests of virus samples collected on Sunday from an unspecified number of people with a fever in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant, state media said. The country has so far officially confirmed that one death is linked to an ommicron infection.

Lacking vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other key health tools to fight the virus, North Korea’s pandemic response will be mostly about isolating people with symptoms in designated shelters, experts say.

North Korea does not have the technological and other means to impose extreme lockdowns like China, which has closed entire cities and locked residents to their homes, nor can it afford to do so at the risk of a fragile economy. even more shocking, North Korea said. Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

While calling for stricter preventive measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kim has also stressed the need to meet the country’s economic goals, which likely means large groups will continue to gather on agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

North Korea’s claim that it had a perfect track record of keeping the virus out for 2 1/2 years has been widely questioned. But the extremely strict border closures, large-scale quarantines and propaganda that emphasized antivirus controls as a matter of “national existence” may have prevented a massive outbreak so far.

Experts are divided on whether the announcement of the outbreak in the north signals their willingness to receive outside help.

The country had shunned millions of doses offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because of concerns about international monitoring requirements associated with those injections.

North Korea has a higher tolerance for civilian suffering than most other countries, and some experts say the country may be willing to accept a certain number of fatalities to gain immunity through infection, rather than vaccines and other means. get outside help.

South Korea’s new conservative government led by President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office on Tuesday, has offered to send vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea, but officials in Seoul say the north has so far received no request for help. done. Relations between the rival Koreas have deteriorated since 2019 after a derailment in the nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

However, Kim’s appeal to his officials to learn from China’s experience indicates that the North could soon request COVID-19-related drugs and testing equipment from China, said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute in South Korea. Korea.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Friday that Beijing stands ready to provide assistance to North Korea, but said he had no information about such a request.

North Korea’s viral spread could have accelerated after an estimated tens of thousands of civilians and troops gathered for a massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, where Kim took center stage, displaying the most powerful missiles of his military nuclear program.

After two years of enforcing one of the world’s strictest border closures to protect its poor health care system, North Korea reopened rail freight with China in January, apparently to ease pressure on its economy. China last month confirmed the closure of the route in the fight against COVID-19 outbreaks in the border areas.

Hours after the north acknowledged its first COVID-19 infections on Thursday, the South Korean military found the north was testing three ballistic missiles in what appeared to be a defiant display of force.

Kim has accelerated his weapons demonstrations in 2022, including the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile in nearly five years. Experts say Kim’s resolve is aimed at forcing Washington to accept the idea of ​​the North as a nuclear power and negotiate the lifting of crippling US-led sanctions and other concessions from a stronger position.

South Korean and US officials also say the north may be preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since 2017, which they say could happen as early as this month.

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