By Hyung-Jin Kim | Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea has confirmed 15 more deaths and hundreds of thousands more patients with flu-like symptoms as it mobilizes more than a million health and other workers to try to suppress the country’s first COVID-19 outbreak, state media reported Sunday.
After maintaining a highly controversial claim to be free of coronavirus for more than two years, North Korea announced on Thursday that it had found its first COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began.
It has since said the fever has spread across the country “explosively” since late April, but has not revealed exactly how many COVID-19 cases it has found. Some experts say North Korea lacks the diagnostic kits needed to test a large number of suspected COVID-19 patients.
The additional deaths reported Sunday took the country’s reported fever-related deaths to 42. The official Korean Central News Agency also reported that an additional 296,180 people with flu symptoms had been counted, bringing the reported total to 820,620.
The outbreak has sparked concern about a humanitarian crisis in North Korea because most of the country’s 26 million people are believed to be unvaccinated against coronavirus, and its public health system has been in ruins for decades. Some experts say North Korea could suffer huge deaths if it does not immediately receive external shipments of vaccines, medicines and other medical supplies.
Since Thursday, North Korea has introduced a nationwide lockdown to fight the virus. Observers say it could further strain the country’s fragile economy, which has suffered in recent years due to sharply reduced foreign trade caused by pandemic-related border closures, punishing UN economic sanctions over its nuclear program and its own poor governance.
During a meeting on the outbreak on Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un described the outbreak as a historic “major upheaval” and called for unity between the government and the people to stabilize the outbreak as soon as possible.
The KCNA said Sunday that more than 1.3 million people have been engaged in work to examine and treat sick people and increase public awareness of hygiene. It said everyone with fever and others with abnormal symptoms were quarantined and treated.
Of those with symptoms, 496,030 have recovered, while 324,4550 as of Saturday are still receiving treatment, the KCNA reported, citing the country’s emergency epidemic prevention center.
State media say Kim and other senior North Korean officials are donating their private reserve medicine to support the country’s anti-pandemic fight. During Saturday’s meeting, Kim expressed optimism that the country could bring the outbreak under control, saying that most transmissions take place in communities that are isolated from each other and do not spread from region to region.