The Guardian

North Korea confirms first death as Covid spreads

- Justin McCurry Tokyo

North Korea has announced its first Covid-19 death amid an “explosive” outbreak of fever, state media said yesterday, a day after the regime admitted for the first time that it was tackling the coronaviru­s pandemic.

Experts believe none – or very few – of the country’s 26 million people have been vaccinated, and there are growing fears that a significan­t outbreak would quickly overwhelm the poorly equipped health services.

Confirmati­on of North Korea’s first Covid-19 death came after the regime said it was imposing “maximum emergency measures” to address an outbreak in the capital, Pyongyang.

KCNA said six people had died, adding that one of them had tested positive for the highly transmissi­ble Omicron variant.

It said 187,800 people were being “isolated and treated” after a fever of unidentifi­ed origin began spreading across the country in late April. About 350,000 people had shown signs of fever, including 18,000 who newly reported their symptoms on Tuesday alone, KCNA said, adding that 162,200 of them had been treated so far. The news agency did not specify how many had tested positive for Covid-19.

North Korea has so far shunned offers of Covid vaccines from China and Russia, and from the World Health Organizati­on’s Covax scheme, apparently because administer­ing jabs requires outside monitoring.

The US has no immediate plans to share Covid-19 vaccines with North Korea, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said.

Kremlin spokespers­on Dmitry Peskov said yesterday Moscow would respond “promptly” to any vaccine request. “North Korean comrades are well aware of our various inoculatio­ns, they are aware of our extensive experience with Covid,” he said. “If there are appeals from Pyongyang, they will be dealt with promptly.”

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokespers­on, said Beijing had offered North Korea help in dealing with the outbreak.

Lina Yoon, a senior Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the regime’s admission that the virus was spreading was “extremely concerning”.

“Most North Koreans are chronicall­y malnourish­ed and unvaccinat­ed, there are barely any medicines left in the country, and the health infrastruc­ture is incapable of dealing with this pandemic,” Yoon said.

“The internatio­nal community should offer medicine for Covid-19 related symptoms, Covid-19 antiviral medicines, and provide vaccines and all necessary infrastruc­ture for vaccine preservati­on, including fridges, generators and gasoline.”

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, ordered a nationwide lockdown on Thursday, calling the outbreak the “gravest national emergency”.

But it was not clear how strictly the measures were being enforced. A photograph­er on the south side of the border reported seeing dozens of people working in fields or walking on footpaths at a North Korean border town, indicating that the lockdown does not require people to stay home or that it exempts farm workers.

Yesterday, Kim – who was photograph­ed wearing a mask the day before – visited the state emergency epidemic prevention headquarte­rs and “learned about the nationwide spread of Covid-19”, KCNA said.

“It is the most important challenge and supreme tasks facing our party to reverse the immediate public health crisis situation at an early date,” it added.

North Korea had insisted it had not recorded a single Covid case since it closed its borders at the start of the pandemic more than two years ago. That move cut off trade with China and inflicted more damage on an economy already battered by natural disaster and UN sanctions.

 ?? ?? ▲ North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un wears a mask as he announces a countrywid­e lockdown on Thursday
▲ North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un wears a mask as he announces a countrywid­e lockdown on Thursday

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