North Korea confirms 21 deaths as it battles COVID-19

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

The fever has spread rapidly since late April, with the total number of new deaths and cases rising to 27 deaths and 524,440 illnesses from Friday. North Korea says 243,630 people have recovered and 280,810 remain in quarantine. State media did not specify how many fever cases and deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 infections.

The country imposed a nationwide lockdown on Thursday after confirming its first case of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. For more than two years, it has stood by a widely questioned claim that a flawless record has stopped a virus that has spread to nearly every part of the world.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described the outbreak as a “huge disruption” in history at an anti-virus strategy meeting on Saturday and called on the government and people to unite to stabilize the outbreak as soon as possible.

Kim expressed optimism that the country can control the outbreak, saying that most transmission occurs within isolated communities and does not spread between regions. Since Thursday, the country has taken stronger precautionary measures aimed at limiting the movement of people and goods between cities and counties, but state media descriptions of the measures suggest people are not confined to their homes.

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

Tests of virus samples taken Sunday from an unspecified number of people with fever in the country’s capital Pyongyang confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant, state media said. So far, the country has officially confirmed one death linked to omicron infection.

With a lack of vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other major health tools to fight the virus, North Korea’s pandemic response has largely consisted of isolating people with symptoms in designated shelters, experts said.

North Korea doesn’t have the technology and other resources to impose extreme blockades like China, which has shut down entire cities and confined residents to their homes, and doesn’t have the ability to do so, risking further shocks to a fragile economy, said Seoul, South Korea. Hong Min, an analyst at the Unified Research Institute.

Even as he called for stronger preventive measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, King stressed that the country’s economic goals should be met, which could mean large groups will continue to congregate at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

It is unusual for an isolated North Korea to admit to an outbreak of any infectious disease, let alone one as threatening as COVID-19, because it is so proud and sensitive to the outside world’s perception of its self-proclaimed “socialist utopia” . But experts are divided on whether North Korea’s announcement of the outbreak conveys a willingness to accept outside help.

The country has shied away from millions of doses of the vaccine provided by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because of concerns about the international surveillance requirements that come with the vaccines.

North Korea is more tolerant of civilian suffering than most other countries, and some experts say the country may be willing to accept a certain death toll to gain immunity through infection, rather than vaccines and other outside help.

The neo-conservative government of South Korean President Yoon Se-yeol, who took office on Tuesday, has offered to send vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea on humanitarian grounds, but officials in Seoul said the North had so far made no requests for help.

The spread of the virus is likely to accelerate after an estimated tens of thousands of civilians and troops gathered in Pyongyang for a massive military parade on April 25, where Kim Jong-un took center stage and displayed the most powerful missile in his military nuclear program.

Two years after maintaining one of the strictest border closures in the world to protect its abysmal health care system, North Korea reopened rail freight with China in February in an apparent attempt to ease pressure on its economy. But China confirmed the closure of the route last month as it battled an outbreak of COVID-19 along the border.

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