North Korean authorities are mobilizing medical students in the capital Pyongyang to help in hospitals suddenly overwhelmed by cases of COVID-19, sources in the country told RFA. Yet deaths continue to rise due to lack of proper care and from counterfeit medicines, as treatment options remain limited in the poor and isolated country.
After more than two years of denying that any North Koreans had contracted coronavirus, the country finally announced its first cases and deaths last week, saying the Omicron variant had begun to spread among participants in a large-scale military parade by the end of April.
The long-term denial means doctors at the capital’s many hospitals are not up to date on how to treat coronavirus, a Pyongyang resident told RFA’s Korean service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“As a result, some elderly people infected with Omicron and people with chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes died because they did not receive proper treatment,” the source said.
“In addition, there are a number of people who have died due to side effects from medications they bought on their own without proper prescriptions,” the source said.
Pyongyang, with 2.9 million people living relatively close to each other, has been hardest hit by the pandemic.
“They declared an emergency and mobilized doctors from every hospital in the city, then they even started mobilizing medical students,” a Pyongyang resident told RFA’s Korean service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“All residents of the city are subject to intensive medical examinations. They should check their temperature and report any abnormal symptoms twice a day, ”said the source.
Demand for antidepressants and antibiotics has increased significantly. Many people travel from pharmacy to pharmacy in search of acetaminophen, ibuprofen and amoxicillin, the source said. Antibiotics have no effect on viral diseases such as COVID-19.
“Authorities began releasing emergency medicine from wartime and have placed uniformed military doctors in pharmacies to prevent theft. So now it is possible to buy necessary medicine,” the source said.
Home to most of the country’s privileged elites, Pyongyang has superior health facilities than those found in the provinces.
In the town of Hamhung, in the eastern province of South Hamgyong, people had rushed to hospitals weeks before the declared emergency and complained of symptoms of coronavirus, a medical source told RFA.
“There are provincial hospitals and city hospitals as well as health institutions and facilities in provincial towns like Hamhung. But in case of county level hospitals, there are only few beds with poor medical equipment and facilities and inexperienced doctors,” said the other source.
“I’m worried about whether they can handle it. “It will be of great help if the authorities receive help from the UN or medicines manufactured in South Korea that are effective and safe,” the source said.
About 2.2 million people have been affected by fever outbreaks, 65 of whom have died, according to data based on reports from North Korean state media published by 38 north, a site that provides analyzes of the country and is operated by the US-based think tank Stimson Center. About 1.5 million are reported to have recovered, while 754,800 are under treatment.
The country has only a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases, which 38 north attributed to insufficient test capacities. Data published at the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center showed that North Korea had only one confirmed COVID-19 case and six deaths Friday night.
The figures provided by state media are likely to be accurate, Ahn Kyungsoo, head of dprkhealth.org, a South Korea-based site that tracks North Korea’s health situation.
But Ahn said not all “fever” cases are necessarily coronavirus.
“In mid-April, the seasons in Korea change. The North Korean authorities have published statistics since the end of April. There are inevitably many people who develop fever at that time of year due to the change of seasons … And the main symptoms. “are almost the same as those of people with colds who get sick between seasons,” he said.
“The cumulative number of people with fever that the North Korean authorities are talking about is not an individual with a confirmed case of COVID-19. Their definition of ‘cured’ does not mean full recovery from COVID-19, but only that fever symptoms have disappeared. “These are the people who have been released from quarantine,” he said, adding that test kits in North Korea are few and numbers can only be kept by observing symptoms such as fever, body aches, cough and sore throat.
Ahn said that even with a lot of help from the international community in the form of donated vaccines, North Koreans would still have trouble inoculating everyone due to lack of cold storage and inability to quickly transport vaccines to most parts of the country.
“It also takes time for the vaccine to take effect after being vaccinated. From North Korea’s perspective, it will take a while, even if they get the vaccine tomorrow. So I think it would be more beneficial to get as many oral treatments as possible than the vaccine. “
Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin J. Chung