Kim blasts pandemic response as North Korean outbreak surges

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In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, visits a pharmacy in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sunday, May 15, 2022. Independent journalists were denied access for cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as supplied and cannot be independently verified. The Korean watermark on the image as provided by the source reads: “KCNA”, which is short for Korean Central News Agency. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

PA

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has criticized officials for slow drug deliveries and mobilized the military to respond to a rise in suspected COVID-19 infections, as his country struggles to contain a fever that is believed to have killed dozens of people and sickened almost a million more in a three-day period.

North Korean health authorities said on Monday eight more people had died and 392,920 others were showing symptoms of fever. This brings the death toll to 50 and illnesses to more than 1.2 million, respectively. It’s a jump from six deaths and 350,000 illnesses reported last Friday, a day after the North said it discovered an unknown number of people in the capital Pyongyang had tested positive for the omicron variant.

Kim acknowledged that the fast-spreading fever, most likely brought on by COVID-19, is causing “great upheaval” in the country, and outside experts say the true scale of the outbreak is likely far greater than what it is. which is described in state control. media.

Some suspect that North Korea downplayed his deaths or illnesses to shield Kim’s leadership from criticism. The North likely lacks test kits and other tools to detect virus carriers without symptoms or with mild symptoms, meaning several million people may already have been infected.

“When people die, the North Korean authorities will say they died from overwork or natural death, not from COVID-19,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. South. Nam said the North was likely downplaying the death toll to protect “the dignity of its supreme leader”.

While neighboring South Korea and China have offered to send medical supplies and other aid, experts say it’s too late to inoculate the North’s 26 million people, and the only outside help realistic would be to offer limited supplies of vaccines to reduce deaths among those at high risk. groups, including the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions.

It is also unclear if and when Kim would accept offers of outside help, as he has already rallied in unity at home to guard against the pandemic without resorting to foreign aid.

State media did not specify how many fever cases were confirmed as COVID-19. Among the 50 deaths, North Korea has only officially identified one as a COVID-19 case so far.

North Korea is believed to rely primarily on isolating people with symptoms in shelters. Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of South Korea’s Sejong Institute said the North’s limited number of test kits are likely mostly reserved for the ruling elite.

Failure to slow the virus could have disastrous consequences for North Korea, given its failing health system and the fact that its people would go unvaccinated. There is also malnutrition and chronic poverty.

The North imposed what it described as maximum preventive measures that restricted travel between cities and counties, and Kim ordered public health officials, teachers and others to identify those suffering. fever so that they can be quarantined. On Sunday, more than 564,860 people were in quarantine, North Korean state media reported.

The explosive growth in fever cases may underscore how quickly omicron can travel through an unvaccinated population without access to the proper health tools, and deaths will surely increase in the coming weeks given the time lags between infections and deaths, said Jung Jae-hun, professor of preventive medicine. medicine at Gachon University in South Korea.

While it’s clear that COVID-19 is spreading at an alarming rate, there are questions about the accuracy of North Korea’s fever count. Jung said North Korean health workers are unlikely to be able to give reliable daily updates, given the lack of testing and other resources, and may be adding more. case days to their one-day count as a result of delays.

Cho Han Bum, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said North Korea’s fever totals appeared to be an “outright lie”.

“North Korea says about 390,000 more have fallen ill but only eight have died in the past day, while South Korea (Sunday) reported 25,000 new cases and 48 deaths,” it said. -he declares.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, said the actual number of COVID-19 infections in North Korea is likely at least three times higher than the number of patients with COVID-19. fever in North Korea due to under-reporting, poor health care and poorly computerized administrative networks.

At a ruling party Politburo meeting on Sunday, Kim criticized government and health officials for what he described as a botched response to the pandemic, saying drugs are not being distributed to pharmacies in time due to their “irresponsible work attitude” and lack of organization.

The Politburo had issued an emergency order to immediately release and quickly distribute state drug supplies and for pharmacies to open their doors 24 hours a day, but Kim said those measures were not being properly implemented. work. Kim ordered his army’s medical units to get involved in stabilizing the supply of drugs to Pyongyang, KCNA said.

North Korea’s previous claim of a perfect record to keep the virus out for 2½ years has been widely doubted. But its extremely strict border closures, large-scale quarantines and propaganda that emphasized virus checks as a matter of “national existence” may have averted a huge outbreak so far.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol told the National Assembly on Monday that the South is willing to send vaccines, medicine, equipment and health personnel to the North if it agrees.

South Korean officials said Pyongyang has so far made no request for help from Seoul. The North also shunned millions of doses of vaccine donated by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, likely because they carried international monitoring requirements.

Kim has always stressed that the country’s economic goals must be met, which likely means huge groups will continue to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

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