SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Before acknowledging its first domestic cases of COVID-19, North Korea spent two and a half years rejecting outside offers of vaccines and firmly asserting that its superior socialist system was protecting its 26 million people. of “a malicious virus”. that had killed millions around the world.
His surprise admission this week has left many outsiders wondering how bad things really are, and there is growing concern that it could cause a major humanitarian crisis in a country with some of the world’s worst public medical infrastructure.
Because the North has been in lockdown since early 2020, with no reporters, aid workers or diplomats coming in regularly, reading the situation is something of a guessing game, and the North has been vague with its depictions of widespread fevers in the media. state. But there are some worrying facts: no reported vaccines, very limited testing capacity, a terrible medical system, and widespread poverty.
Without immediate foreign aid shipments, some experts say North Korea could face massive death and infection rates. Others, however, say North Korea is using its admission of an outbreak to rally the public against the virus and increase control of its people.
Here’s a look at what a lockdown would look like in one of the world’s most locked-down nations.
WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT THE OUTBREAK?
North Korea announced Thursday that an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang have tested positive for the omicron variant. He called the outbreak the “most serious emergency” in the state.
However, the scope was unclear, and the North Korean media used vague language.
State media reports said Friday that a “fever” has been spreading “explosively” since late April, leaving six dead, 350,000 sick and 187,800 in quarantine. They said that one of the dead had been diagnosed with the omicron variant.
Reports said the cause of the fever has yet to be identified.
Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Seoul Korea University College of Medicine, said most of the people with fevers were probably virus patients. He said that North Korea has a limited number of COVID-19 test kits.
The World Health Organization says North Korea has reported testing 64,200 people since the start of the pandemic, an extremely low number compared to other countries. The number of COVID-19 tests in South Korea is about 172 million.
The North Korea outbreak may be linked to a massive military parade on April 25, where leader Kim Jong Un spoke about his nuclear weapons in front of tens of thousands of Pyongyang residents and troops. The omicron virus may have entered North Korea through its northern border with China when it reopened freight rail traffic between the two countries in January. The border has been closed ever since.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES?
The outbreak could be devastating because the North Korean population remains largely unvaccinated and suffers from chronic shortages of medicine and medical equipment.
“North Korea has a lot of vulnerable people who don’t have strong immune systems. His official inoculation rate is zero and he has no COVID-19 treatment pills,” said Kim, the professor. “North Korea can end up with the worst death and infection rates from the pandemic in the world for the size of its population” without outside support.
In many advanced countries, omicron has caused significantly fewer hospitalizations and deaths than previous strains of the coronavirus, but that’s mainly due to vaccinations, the use of antiviral pills for COVID-19, effective treatment in intensive care units, and populations that have been exposed to the virus before. None of this applies to North Korea, said Jung Jae-hun, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University in South Korea.
“We were talking about a 0.1% fatality rate for omicron in South Korea, but it will be significantly higher in North Korea, possibly even reaching 1%, although it is difficult to make precise predictions at this point,” Jung said. .
The secretive nature of North Korea makes it virtually impossible to determine the true scale of its outbreak and how it will unfold.
Many North Koreans have adapted to living with a troubled medical system and buying drugs privately, according to Ahn Kyung-su, director of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website that focuses on health issues in North Korea.
While North Korea cannot avoid mass infections, Ahn said it will likely avoid a “catastrophic” death toll like the hundreds of thousands of deaths reported during a mid-1990s famine.
HOW IS NORTH KOREA RESPONDING?
Since Thursday, North Korea has imposed a nationwide lockdown, isolating all residential and work units from one another. But there are signs that the country could try to live with the virus, up to a point.
Kim Jong Un still ordered officials to go ahead with planned construction, farming and other state projects. On Thursday afternoon, the country even tested three ballistic missiles, suggesting that it will continue its recent run of weapons tests.
Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said North Korea’s pandemic response will mainly consist of isolating people with symptoms in shelters. He said North Korea does not have the resources to impose extreme lockdowns like in China, which has locked down entire cities and confined residents to their homes. He, too, is concerned about further damaging an already fragile economy.
Ahn said the tougher anti-virus measures will not be much different from previous restrictions and that it is mostly rhetoric aimed at pressuring a public tired of long-running pandemic restrictions to remain vigilant amid surging cases in the country. neighboring China.
North Korea may use the heightened response to the pandemic to increase control over its people, said Yang Un-chul, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute. North Korea would have received earlier offers to ship vaccines if it had really wanted to protect itself against the virus, Yang said.
WHAT ARE THE PROSPECTS FOR FOREIGN AID?
The outbreak renews hopes that North Korea will be able to accept foreign shipments of vaccines, COVID-19 treatment pills and other medical supplies.
North Korea will not directly ask for such help, but will first see how Seoul and Washington react, said Kim, the professor.
Other experts say North Korea may think isolating people with symptoms is the only realistic option it has, considering its shortcomings in hospital infrastructure and medical supplies, which would be difficult to overcome without extensive outside help, something that is unlikely. that North Korea accepts.
Jung said the only significant help North Korea could allow is a limited supply of vaccines for the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions, as it is too late to vaccinate the entire population of the country.
Hong said North Korea’s moves to press ahead with its goals of improving its economy and military despite the outbreak suggest the country is willing to accept a certain level of deaths to gain immunity through infection, rather than to receive vaccinations and other outside help.