North Korea spent two and a half years rejecting foreign offers of vaccines and insisting that its superior socialist system was protecting its 26 million people from “a malicious virus” that had killed millions worldwide.
So the surprise acceptance this week of domestic COVID-19 cases has left many foreigners wondering how bad things really are.
And there are growing concerns that it could trigger a major humanitarian crisis in a country with one of the worst public medical infrastructures in the world.
Because the North has been tightly closed since the beginning of 2020, with no journalists, aid workers or diplomats coming in regularly, reading the situation is something of a guesswork game.
The North has been vague with its descriptions in the state media of widespread fever.
But there are some troubling facts: no vaccine reported, very limited testing ability, a terrible medical system, and widespread poverty.
Without immediate deliveries of foreign aid, some experts say North Korea could face massive death rates and infections.
Others, however, say North Korea is using its acceptance of an outbreak to rally the public against the virus and increase its control over its people.
Here’s a look at what a jam can look like in one of the most closed nations in the world.
What is known about the explosion?
North Korea announced on Thursday that an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang tested positive for the Omicron variant. He called the blast “the state’s most serious emergency.”
However, it was unclear about the scope and the Northern media used vague language.
State media reports Friday said a “fever” has been spreading “explosively” since late April, leaving six dead, 350,000 sick and 187,800 quarantined.
They said one of the dead was diagnosed with the Omicron variant.
Later on Saturday, North Korea reported 21 new deaths and 174,440 other people with fever symptoms.
As of Sunday, North Korea has reported a total of 42 deaths and 820,620 suspected cases, with 324,550 people under medical care.
Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Seoul Korea University College of Medicine, said most people with fever were infected with the virus. He said North Korea has a limited number of test kits for COVID-19.
The World Health Organization says North Korea has reported tests on 64,200 people since the pandemic began, an extremely low figure compared to other countries. The number of COVID-19 tests in South Korea is about 172 million.
North Korea’s proliferation could 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 over its northern border with China when it reopened rail freight traffic between the two countries in January.
Since then, the border has been closed.
What are the challenges?
The spread can be devastating because the people of North Korea remain largely unvaccinated and it suffers from a chronic shortage of medicines and medical equipment.
“North Korea has a lot of vulnerable people who do not have a strong immune system. Its official vaccination rate is zero and there are no pills to treat COVID-19,” Professor Kimsaid said.
“North Korea could end up with the worst death rate and pandemic infection in the world for its population size” without outside support, he added.
In many advanced countries, Omicron has resulted in far fewer hospitalizations and deaths than previous coronavirus variants.
But this is mainly due to vaccinations, use of COVID-19 antiviral pills, effective treatment in intensive care units and populations that have been previously exposed to the virus.
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 percent mortality rate for Omicron in South Korea, but this will be significantly higher in North Korea, perhaps even reaching 1 percent, although it is difficult to make predictions of correct at this point, ”said Professor Jung.
The secretive nature of North Korea makes it virtually impossible to understand the true extent of its explosion and how it will develop.
Many North Koreans have adapted to living with a troubled medical system and buying medicines privately, according to Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a health-focused website in North Korea.
While North Korea could not avoid mass infections, Mr Ahn said it was likely to avoid a “catastrophic” number of deaths like the hundreds of thousands of deaths reported during a famine in the mid-1990s.
How is North Korea reacting?
North Korea has imposed a nationwide blockade since Thursday, isolating all work and housing units from each other. But there are signs that the country may try to live with the virus, to some extent.
Kim Jong Un still ordered officials to move forward with construction, agriculture and other planned state projects.
On Thursday afternoon, the country even tested three ballistic missiles, suggesting it would continue the final series of weapons tests.
Hong Min, an analyst at the Seoul Korean Institute for National Unification, said the response to the North Korean pandemic would be primarily about isolating people with symptoms in shelters.
He said North Korea has no resources to impose extreme isolation like in China, which has closed entire cities and restricted residents to their homes. It is also concerned about further damage to an already fragile economy.
Mr Ahn said the toughened anti-virus steps would not be much different from previous crashes and that it was largely rhetoric aimed at pushing an audience tired of the long-term pandemic constraints to maintain their vigilance amid rising cases. in neighboring China.
North Korea could use the raised response to the pandemic to increase its control over its people, said Yang Un-chul, an analyst at the Sejong Private Institute.
North Korea would have received previous offers to ship vaccines from abroad if it had really wanted to guard against the virus, Mr Yang said.
What are the prospects for external assistance?
The spread renews hopes that North Korea may accept foreign deliveries of vaccines, COVID-19 treatment pills and other medical supplies.
North Korea will not directly seek such help, but will instead see how Seoul and Washington react at first, Professor Kim said.
Other experts say North Korea may think isolating people with symptoms is the only realistic option it has, given its shortcomings in hospital infrastructure and medical supplies, which would be difficult to overcome. without extensive outside help, something North Korea is unlikely to accept.
Professor Jung said the only significant aid North Korea could allow is limited supplies of vaccines to the elderly and people 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 pursue its goals of improving its economy and military despite the outbreak suggest the country is willing to accept a certain level of death to gain immunity through infection, rather than take vaccines and other outside help.
AP / Reuters
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