North Korea admits its first EVER Covid death as ‘explosive’ outbreak is linked to huge parade – amid fears country will be overwhelmed because it has NO vaccination programme
- The isolated North officially confirmed on Thursday its first COVID-19 infections
- It is the first time the country has admitted to cases since the pandemic began
- State media have not confirmed the total number of COVID-19 cases so far, but said that over 350,000 people have shown fever symptoms since late April
- Experts have said outbreak could be linked to a huge military parade on April 25
- Footage showed thousands of people, unmasked and not socially distanced
- There are now fears the country’s under-resourced healthcare system could be overwhelmed by Omicron, with no vaccine programme being rolled out
North Korea has today admitted its first ever death from Covid-19 as it battles an ‘explosive’ outbreak, after confirming its first official case of the virus on Thursday.
The admission has raised fears the virus could devastate a country with an under-resourced health system, limited testing capabilities, and no vaccine programme.
The isolated North confirmed on Thursday its first COVID-19 infections since the pandemic emerged more than two years ago, shifting to the ‘maximum emergency epidemic prevention system’ with Kim Jong Un imposing a national lockdown.
State media have not confirmed the total number of COVID-19 cases so far, but said that more than 350,000 people have shown fever symptoms since late April.
Experts have said that a huge military parade held on April 25 to celebrate the army’s founding could inadvertently have spread Covid-19 nationwide.
Footage of the event on state television showed thousands of people – unmasked and not socially distanced – packed into Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung square to watch ranks of soldiers goose-step past, and applaud as huge missiles were driven by.
North Korea has admitted that it is battled an ‘explosive’ Covid-19 outbreak after confirming its first official case of the virus on Thursday. Pictured: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un chairs a Worker’s Party meeting on the country’s virus outbreak
The admission of an outbreak has raised fears the virus could devastate a country with an under-resourced health system, limited testing capabilities, and no vaccine programme. Pictured: Kim Jong Un wears a mask as he chairs a meeting on Thursday
Pictured: North Korean health workers in hazmat suits disinfect inside the Pyongyang Department Store No. 1 in December 2020. After claiming to have kept the virus at bay, state media said that more than 350,000 people have now shown fever symptoms since late April
The current Covid-19 outbreak is ‘closely linked to the April 25 parade,’ Hong Min, a researcher at the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification told AFP.
‘More than 20,000 people were preparing for the parade for two months prior to the event and stayed on in the capital for photo ops with Kim Jong Un,’ he said.
Kim’s regime only appears to have ‘realised the gravity’ of the situation belatedly and carried out Covid-19 testing after parade participants returned to their districts.
‘Holding a military parade attended by a large crowd, when Omicron was raging in neighbouring China, shows Pyongyang was overconfident in their capabilities to fight and prevent the virus,’ said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute.
North Korea was one of the first countries to close its borders in January 2020 after the virus first emerged in neighbouring China.
Its policy of strict isolation initially appeared to keep Covid at bay, and the country reported no cases for two years – although some experts question this claim.
Pyongyang even staged a night-time military parade in September 2021 with no reported consequences, although photographs of that event show participants wearing masks.
But over time, it seems North Korea may have relaxed its guard domestically, with state media reporting on anti-epidemic work more sporadically, analysts said.
At the time of the 2021 parade, the movement of people and goods to and from China ‘was largely restricted,’ Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies told AFP.
But earlier this year, North Korea briefly eased its near-total lockdown of cross border trade with China – likely the root cause of the current Omicron outbreak, he said.
‘The virus may have entered North Korea via three different routes: railroads, shipping and smuggling,’ he said. ‘The point is it came from China.’
APRIL 25: Experts have said that a huge military parade held on April 25 to celebrate the army’s founding could inadvertently have spread Covid-19 nationwide. Pictured: Kim Jong Un waves to the crowd during the military parade last month
Footage of the event on state television showed thousands of people – unmasked and not socially distanced – packed into Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung square to watch ranks of soldiers goose-step past, and applaud as huge missiles were driven by
The current Covid-19 outbreak is ‘closely linked to the April 25 parade,’ Hong Min, a researcher at the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification told AFP news agency
Along with Eritrea, North Korea is one of only two countries that have not started a vaccination campaign against COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The COVAX global COVID-19 vaccine-sharing programme cut the number of doses allocated for North Korea as the country has so far failed to arrange for any shipments, reportedly over international monitoring requirements.
Pyongyang also declined offers of vaccines from China.
The latest reported assessment of whether leader Kim Jong Un was vaccinated was from July 2021, when South Korea’s spy agency said there were no signs he had received a shot.
North Korea said last year it had developed its own polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment to conduct coronavirus tests, and Russia has said it had delivered small numbers of test kits.
But North Korea is heavily sanctioned over its nuclear weapons programme, and since 2020 has maintained strict border lockdowns that have blocked many supplies.
Experts said that so far the pace of testing suggests North Korea cannot handle the number of symptomatic cases it has reported.
As of the end of March, only 64,207 of North Korea’s 25 million people had been tested for COVID, and all the results were negative, the latest WHO data shows.
‘North Korea has been testing around 1,400 people each week. Assuming they were at their peak capacity, then they can perform 400 tests per day max – not nearly enough to test 350,000 people with symptoms,’ said Harvard Harvard Medical School’s Kee Park, who has worked on health care projects in North Korea.
It’s unclear whether North Korea has imposed any mask mandates since the pandemic began. Citizens were at times seen wearing masks, but also going mask-free at some major political events that mobilized tens of thousands of people.
Kim was shown for the first time wearing a mask at the COVID response meeting on Thursday.
Along with Eritrea, North Korea is one of only two countries that have not started a vaccination campaign against COVID-19. Pictured: A healthcare worker sprays a student’s hands with disinfectant in November
In this file photo taken on March 18, 2022 employees spray disinfectant as part of preventative measures against the Covid-19 coronavirus at the Pyongyang Children’s Department Store
People sit near a screen showing a news broadcast at a train station in Seoul on May 12, 2022, of North Koreas leader Kim Jong Un appearing in a face mask on television for the first time to order nationwide lockdowns
North Korea said last year it had developed its own polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment to conduct coronavirus tests, and Russia has said it had delivered small numbers of test kits
North Korea ranks last in the world for its ability to rapidly respond to and mitigate the spread of an epidemic, according to the latest Global Health Security Index in December.
Although it has a high number of trained doctors and the ability to rapidly deploy and organise staff in the face of emergencies, North Korea’s health care system is chronically under-resourced.
Every North Korean village has one or two clinics or hospitals, and most county hospitals are equipped with X-ray facilities, ‘though not necessarily functional ones,’ the WHO said in its 2014-2019 Country Cooperation Strategy report.
Kwon Young-se, South Korea’s new nominee to be the unification minister, responsible for inter-Korean ties, said at his confirmation hearing on Thursday the North is believed to lack even the most basic medical supplies such as painkillers and disinfectants.
An independent U.N. human rights investigator reported in March that the North’s COVID-19 restrictions, including the border closings, could have prevented massive outbreaks ‘though likely at considerable cost to the wider health situation.’
‘Chronic issues plague the country’s healthcare system, including under-investment in infrastructure, medical personnel, equipment and medicine, irregular power supplies and inadequate water and sanitation facilities,’ the report said.
The outbreak could also pose a political challenge for the North’s authoritarian leader, North Koreans who had defected to the South said.
‘Kim ordered the mobilization of reserve medical supplies, which means in North Korea they will now use war reserves and that general hospitals have ran out of medicines,’ said Thae Young-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016 and is now a lawmaker.
Ji Seong-ho, another South Korean lawmaker who left the North in 2006, said the virus could spread rapidly, due partly to the lack of a working medical system.
‘An enormous number of people died during the (1990s) famine after typhoid broke out. It was a nightmare for the North Korean regime, and for the North Korean people,’ Ji told a parliamentary session.
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