North Korea reports 21 new deaths amid efforts to mitigate COVID-19

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North Korea on Saturday reported 21 new deaths and 174,440 people with fever symptoms as the country seeks to slow the spread of COVID-19 among its unvaccinated residents.

The deaths and new cases, which began on Friday, increased the total to 27 deaths and 52,440 cases of illness amid a rapid spread of fever since late April. North Korea said 243,630 people have recovered and 280,810 are still in quarantine. State media did not specify the number of fever cases and deaths that were confirmed as COVID-19 infections.

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The North Korean flag flutters next to barbed wire at the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 9, 2017.

The North Korean flag flutters next to barbed wire at the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 9, 2017.
(Reuters/Edgar Sue)

The country imposed nationwide lockdowns on Thursday after confirming its first cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. It has previously held out for more than two years a widely questionable claim to a perfect record keeping a virus that has spread almost everywhere in the world.

During a meeting on anti-virus strategies on Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described the outbreak as a historical “big disruption” and called for unity between the government and the people to stabilize the outbreak as quickly as possible.

Kim expressed optimism that the country could bring the outbreak under control, saying that most infections occur within communities that are isolated from one another and do not spread from one region to another. The country has since Thursday imposed stronger precautionary measures aimed at restricting the movement of people and supplies between cities and provinces, but state media descriptions of the steps indicate that people are not confined to their homes.

Experts say a failure to control the spread of COVID-19 could have dire consequences in North Korea, given the country’s poor healthcare system and its 26 million residents largely unvaccinated.

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FILE - In this November 15, 2020, file photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting of the Politburo of the ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea.  Kim has ordered at least two executions, banned fishing at sea, and locked down the capital, Pyongyang in a frantic effort to guard against coronavirus and economic damage, South Korea's spy agency told lawmakers Friday, November 27, 2020. Korean news agency/news service via AP, case)

FILE – In this November 15, 2020, file photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting of the Politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim has ordered at least two executions, banned fishing at sea, and locked down the capital, Pyongyang in a frantic effort to guard against coronavirus and economic damage, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers Friday, November 27, 2020. Korean news agency/news service via AP, case)
(Korea Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, file).

State media said that tests of virus samples collected on Sunday from an unspecified number of feverish people in the capital, Pyongyang, confirmed that they had contracted the variant Omicron. The country has so far officially confirmed one death linked to omicron infection.

With a shortage of vaccines, antiviral tablets, intensive care units and other key health tools to combat the virus, North Korea’s pandemic response will mostly be about isolating people who show symptoms in designated shelters, experts say.

He said North Korea does not have the technological and other resources to impose severe lockdowns like China, which has shut down entire cities and confined residents to their homes, and cannot afford to do so at the risk of unleashing more shocks to the fragile economy. Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

Even as he called for stronger preventive measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kim also stressed that the country’s economic goals must be met, which likely means huge groups will continue to congregate at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

It’s unusual for an isolated North Korea to admit an outbreak of any infectious disease, let alone a serious disease like COVID-19, as it is so proud and sensitive to the outside perception of its self-described “socialist utopia.” But experts are mixed on whether North Korea’s announcement of the outbreak expresses its willingness to receive outside help.

The country had avoided millions of doses provided by the UN-backed COVAX distribution programme, possibly due to concerns about international monitoring requirements associated with these shots.

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Word "COVID-19" This is reflected in a drop on a syringe needle in this illustration taken on November 9, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Rovich/Illustration

The word “COVID-19” is reflected in a drop on a syringe needle in this illustration taken on November 9, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvik/Illustration
(Reuters)

North Korea tolerates civilian suffering to a greater degree than most other countries, and some experts say the country may be willing to accept some level of deaths to gain immunity through infection, rather than receiving vaccines and other outside aid.

South Korea’s new conservative government led by President Yoon Seok-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 say North Korea has not yet requested help.

The viral spread could have been accelerated after an estimated tens of thousands of civilians and troops gathered for a massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, with Kim taking center stage and displaying the most powerful missiles of his military nuclear program.

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After maintaining one of the world’s strictest border closures for two years to protect a poor healthcare system, North Korea reopened freight rail traffic with China in February, apparently to ease pressure on its economy. But China confirmed the road closure last month as it battled the COVID-19 outbreak in border areas.

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