North Korea on Thursday reported 262,270 more cases of people with suspected symptoms of COVID-19 as the number of pandemic cases neared two million — a week after the country acknowledged the outbreak and struggled to slow the rate of infection despite a lack of health resources.
The country is also trying to prevent its fragile economy from deteriorating, but the outbreak could be worse than officially reported due to scarce resources for virus testing and the possibility that North Korea is deliberately underreporting deaths to avoid the political impact on authoritarian leader Kim Jong to tone down -un.
North Korea’s antivirus headquarters reported a single death in the 24 hours to 6 p.m. Wednesday, bringing the death toll to 63, which experts say is unusually low compared to the suspected number of infections.
The official Korean Central News Agency reported that more than 1.98 million people have contracted febrile symptoms since the end of April, which are mainly believed to be infections with the omicron variant of the coronavirus, although the country has been closed due to the Scarcity has only confirmed a small number of cases of infection by exams. At least 740,160 people are in quarantine, the news agency reported.
Omicron variant detected
After maintaining dubious claims that it kept the virus out of the country for two and a half years, North Korea last Thursday admitted its first COVID-19 infections, saying tests of an unspecified number of people in the capital Pyongyang showed that they were infected with the Omicron variant.
Kim has described the outbreak as a “great upheaval” and imposed what the country described as maximum preventive measures that severely restricted the movement of people and supplies between cities and regions.
He mobilized more than a million workers to find and quarantine people with fevers and other suspected COVID-19 symptoms. Thousands of soldiers have been ordered to help transport medicines to the capital, Pyongyang.
Images released by state media showed health workers in white and orange hazmat suits patrolling the city’s cordoned-off streets, disinfecting buildings and streets, and delivering food and other supplies to apartment blocks.
But large groups of workers continue to gather at farms, mining rigs, power plants and construction sites to boost production as Kim has demanded that economic goals be met, the Korean Central News Agency reported.
Experts have said Kim cannot afford to shut down the country as it would inflict another shock to an economy damaged by mismanagement and cripple US-led sanctions over his nuclear weapons ambitions and pandemic border closures.
The country is facing urgent pressure to protect crops amid a prolonged drought that has ravaged the country during a crucial rice-growing season, a worrying development in a country that has long suffered from food insecurity.
North Korean state media also said that Kim’s trophy-building projects, including the construction of 10,000 new homes in the town of Hwasong, “are moving forward as planned.”
“All sectors of the national economy are increasing production to the maximum while strictly complying with anti-epidemic measures taken by the Party and the state,” the Korean Central News Agency reported, referring to travel restrictions and virus controls at workplaces, including worker segregation in groups according to their occupational classification.
The news agency added: “Units are being appropriately quarantined at major construction sites where our Party’s long-cherished wish is becoming a reality and in key industries such as metal, chemical, electricity and coal. And construction and production are steadily accelerated.” giving priority to anti-epidemic work.”
Case growth could be slowing
Kee Park, a global health specialist at Harvard Medical School who has worked on health projects in North Korea, said the number of new cases in the country should slow due to the increased preventive measures.
But treating the already large number of people with COVID-19 will be challenging for North Korea, and deaths could potentially approach the tens of thousands given the size of the country’s caseload, Park said.
It’s unclear whether North Korea’s admission of the outbreak reflects a willingness to seek outside help. The country has shunned millions of vaccine shots being offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, likely due to international surveillance requirements needed to get the vaccines.
Kim Tae-hyo, deputy national security adviser to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, told reporters Thursday that North Korea has ignored offers of help from South Korea and the US to contain the outbreak.
Experts have said North Korea may be more willing to accept help from China, its key ally.