One day after finally confirming it has a COVID-19 outbreak on its hands, North Korea reports that an unidentified fever has affected at least 350,000 of its citizens in recent weeks.
Outside observers believe COVID-19 cases have been present in the country for some time, but state authorities only publicly announced the first cases on Thursday, May 12, putting the whole country into a tight lockdown.
The following day, state media KCNA reported that six people have died after suffering from “a fever” with one testing positive for the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant. It was also reported that “a fever whose cause couldn't be identified” has been “explosively” spreading since late April and has affected a total of 350 000 people.
This unidentified fever is likely to be COVID-19, experts say, although the news report did not say how many had tested positive for the infection. The unusual choice of words from the KCNA news agency is likely to be a reflection of the lack of testing in the country.
It's also widely believed that very few people in North Korea have received any vaccination against COVID-19 and it's one of the worst prepared countries to deal with a healthcare crisis in the whole world.
“There is no evidence to show that North Korea has access to enough vaccines to protect its population from Covid-19. Yet, it has rejected millions of doses of AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines offered by the WHO-led COVAX program, a global Covid-19 vaccine distribution mechanism which requires transparent distribution and monitoring," Amnesty International’s East Asia researcher Boram Jang said in a statement.
“With the first official news of a Covid-19 outbreak in the country, continuing on this path could cost many lives and would be an unconscionable dereliction of upholding the right to health."
Despite these dire straits, it appears that the "hermit kingdom" is now treating its COVID-19 outbreak with transparency after shrouding the situation in secrecy. State authorities have announced they have put all its provinces, cities, and counties under lockdown and isolated each “working unit, production unit, and residential unit” to prevent the spread of infection.
Another state news story published on May 12 spoke of the “grave situation” facing the country, adding they have decided to step up a gear to a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system.”
“The Party, administrative and economic organs, public and state security and armed forces organs and all other organs and sectors shall unconditionally accept the instructions of the state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters as the demand of the Party Central Committee and thoroughly implement them,” a KCNA article reads.
Kim Jong Un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, has visited the state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters and criticized how the country, especially the capital Pyongyang, has succumbed to an explosive spread of the virus.
North Korean state television, which you can watch a livestream of here, has broadcasted footage of Kim walking into the pandemic response HQ in Pyongyang wearing a face mask. He was later seen at the headquarters puffing on a cigarette, without his mask on, and conversing with top officials.