North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has criticised his country’s response to its first officially confirmed Covid-19 outbreak as “immature”, accusing government officials of inadequacies and inertia as fever cases swept the country.
On Wednesday, North Korea reported 232,880 more people with fever symptoms, and six more deaths, a week after the country’s first admission of the Covid outbreak. It did not say how many people had tested positive for Covid-19.
Presiding over a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ party, Kim said the “immaturity in the state capacity for coping with the crisis” increased the “complexity and hardships” in fighting the pandemic when “time is the life”, state media reported on Wednesday.
Since its first acknowledgment of the Covid-19 outbreak, North Korea has reported 1.72 million patients with fever symptoms, including 62 deaths as of Tuesday evening.
Amid concerns over the isolated country’s lack of vaccines and adequate medical infrastructure, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said health officials have developed a Covid-19 treatment guide aimed at preventing drug overdoses and other mistreatments that have led to many of the reported deaths.
Experts have warned that a significant Covid-19 outbreak could unleash a humanitarian crisis in North Korea, where the economy has been battered by the pandemic-enforced closure of its border with China – its main trading partner – natural disasters, and years of international sanctions imposed in response to ballistic missile tests.
The regime is not thought to have vaccinated any of its population and does not have access to antiviral drugs that have been used to treat Covid-19 in other countries. Its hospitals have few intensive-care resources to treat severe cases, and widespread malnourishment has made the population of 26 million more susceptible to serious illness.
“It looks really bad,” said Owen Miller, a lecturer in Korean studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. “They are facing the rampant spread of Omicron without protection from vaccines, without much – if any – immunity in the population and without access to most of the drugs that have been used to treat Covid elsewhere.”
Since it reported its first cases last week, North Korea’s propaganda machine has portrayed the virus as an enemy that can be defeated through lockdowns, quarantine and greater vigilance. The state-run KCNA has reported the delivery of unspecified drugs – “the elixir of life” – to pharmacies by army medical units, and public health campaigns calling for mask-wearing and social distancing.
But testing levels are far below what is needed to form an accurate picture of the outbreak and to quickly identify and isolate patients. Some observers speculated that authorities were deliberately underreporting cases to ease the pressure on Kim.
North Korea has tested just 64,200 people since the start of the pandemic’s start, according to the World Health Organization, compared with 17.2 million in neighbouring South Korea.
“We were talking about a 0.1% fatality rate for Omicron in South Korea, but that’s going to be significantly higher in North Korea, possibly even reaching 1%, although it’s difficult to make accurate predictions at this point,” said Jaehun Jung, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University, Seongnam.
Kim, who says the outbreak is causing “great turmoil”, finds himself having to balance public health measures with efforts to revive the crumbling economy.
A ruling party member in North Hamgyong province said people were still going to work and markets remained open, reported the Japan-based Asia Press. “There are no bans on going outside. However, we’ve been ordered to double mask,” the unidentified official told the website, which receives information from citizen journalists equipped with contraband Chinese mobile phones.
“People are going to factories and to their places of work as normal. The authorities don’t want work to be disrupted. People get fever checks when they go to and from work.” The official said people were more concerned about being locked down and prevented from working than catching Covid-19. “People are worried about how to survive.”