Covid – Is a catastrophic situation looming for North Korea? On Friday, May 13, Pyongyang announced its first death from Covid-19, explaining that the virus had already spread across the country, a “fever” that had “spread explosively across the country since the end of April,” according to the official Central News Agency. news agency.
North Korea has so far bragged about its ability to keep the virus at bay, and the World Health Organization has not reported a single confirmed case of Covid-19. The country was one of the first to close its borders in January 2020 after the virus emerged in neighboring China, and its strict isolation policy appeared to keep the virus at bay for two years, according to official data. The assertion has been regularly questioned by many experts.
Citing Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch WatchmanThe fact that the regime is recognizing this wave of the virus inside the country is “extremely alarming.” “The public health situation must be grave,” said Leif Eric Easley, a professor at Eha University in Seoul. The Covid-19 outbreak could already be disastrous for North Korea.
One of the worst healthcare systems in the world
First, the health care system is officially one of the worst in the world, ranking 193 out of 195 countries, according to a survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University in 2021. According to the authorities, health care is free for all, but NGOs say to pay for basic medical services , usually in cigarettes or alcohol.
Patients’ families have to buy medicines on the black market, and doctors are forced to practice clandestine care to make a living, notes Sokel Park of North Korea’s Liberty Organization.
“Doctors’ incomes are certainly not low by North Korean standards, but even then it is difficult to buy a kilo of rice,” researcher Choi Jong-hoon told AFP.
There are no hospitals with intensive care units in rural areas or small towns, where the majority of the country’s 25 million people live, adds this defector who worked as a doctor in the North. According to the researchers, the country also does not have quarantine centers equipped with negative air pressure systems, nor cold storage systems necessary for the distribution of mRNA vaccines.
Relying on its strict measures against Covid, Pyongyang has apparently deemed it unnecessary to vaccinate its residents.
Last year, the country rejected an offer of three million doses of the Chinese vaccine, suggesting it was being given “to countries that need it most.” He also rejected an offer from Russia and the AstraZeneca vaccine provided under the World Health Organization’s Covax Program.
In the final hours, the new administration of South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol offered to send vaccines to North Korea, but admitted that it had not yet discussed the matter with Pyongyang. According to the World Health Organization, North Korea and Eritrea are the only two countries that have not launched a vaccination campaign.
Experts say North Korea’s failing health system will likely struggle to help people suffering from vaccine side effects, which may explain the rejection of vaccine donations.
… and in no way to fight the virus
Finally, information on population health is incomplete, but the World Health Organization said in 2018 that non-communicable diseases such as diabetes were responsible for 84% of deaths in North Korea.
Added to this is the spread of malnutrition caused in particular by the “food crisis” announced by the official media last year, and the shortage of medicines.
“Most North Koreans suffer from chronic malnutrition,” says Lena Yun, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, adding that after two years of the blockade at the border, “almost no medicine is left.”
Malnutrition is also thought to affect the quality of an individual’s immune response to vaccination – which means that a country may also need significant food aid in order to succeed in a vaccination campaign.
Lena Yun summarizes: “Most North Koreans suffer from chronic malnutrition and are not vaccinated, there is practically no more medicine in the country and the health infrastructure is unable to cope with this epidemic.”
Will Pyongyang request international assistance?
China, South Korea and the World Health Organization immediately provided support, as the new government in Seoul said it was ready to send vaccines. But Kim Jong Un’s regime, which tested the launch of three banned ballistic missiles hours after the first cases of the Covid-19 virus were announced, appears unwilling to hold its outstretched hand.
However, experts believe they may soon have no choice. By publicly announcing a large-scale outbreak in English-language media, the regime is sending “an indirect message that the North may seek vaccine assistance from the United States or international organizations in the future,” Yang said. Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
Meanwhile, the country said it is on track to put in place a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention measure”. The Korean Central News Agency said in the aftermath that Kim Jong Un went to the National Epidemic Prevention Headquarters where he “knew about the spread of Covid-19 across the country.”
Currently, the official balance sheet indicates, and therefore without potential verification, six deaths, victims of “fever”, including one who tested positive for Omicron’s BA.2, the Korean Central News Agency noted. “More than 350,000 people developed a fever in a short time and at least 162,200 of them were completely cured,” the same source explained. “On May 12 alone, about 18,000 people developed fever across the country, and at the moment, 187,800 people have been isolated and treated.”
See also on The HuffPost: Despite the discovery of ‘zero COVID’, North Korean TV is not skimping on prevention