Experts fear that North Korea’s health system may not be able to cope with the COVID outbreak among an unvaccinated population.
North Korea has confirmed its first COVID-19 death and says hundreds of thousands of people have a “fever,” in the first indication of the scale of the outbreak in its largely unvaccinated population.
The nuclear-armed country announced its first coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic began on Thursday, going into lockdown after people in the capital Pyongyang tested positive for the Omicron variant.
“A fever whose cause could not be identified has spread explosively across the country since the end of April,” the Korean Central News Agency said on Friday.
“Six people died (one of them tested positive for the Omicron subvariant BA.2),” it added.
Some 350,000 people have shown signs of “fever” while 187,800 people are being treated in isolation, according to KCNA.
Experts fear North Korea’s dilapidated health system may not be able to cope with the spread of COVID-19 as its 26 million people have not been vaccinated against the virus after Pyongyang rejected millions of doses offered under the WHO-led COVAX program.
“With the first official news of a COVID-19 outbreak in the country, continuing down this path could cost many lives and would be a reckless neglect of upholding the right to health,” said Amnesty International East Asia Researcher Boram Jang, in a statement.
Many North Koreans also have health problems as a result of food shortages and malnutrition, making it difficult for their immune systems to fight off disease.
“It is vital that the government act now to protect the right to health of one of the world’s populations with the least access to vaccines and one of its most fragile health systems. That means providing access to vaccines without discrimination and ensuring a transparent vaccine distribution plan that is subject to public scrutiny,” Jang said.
Leader Kim Jong Un, seen wearing a mask on state television for the first time, has declared a “most serious state of emergency” and ordered nationwide lockdowns in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.
KCNA said Kim was briefed on the outbreak during a visit to the state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters on Thursday, where he criticized officials for their handling of the outbreak.
“It is the most important challenge and supreme tasks facing our party to reverse the immediate public health crisis situation at an early date, restore the stability of epidemic prevention, and protect the health and well-being of our people,” Kim said. cited by KCNA.
North Korea has said the outbreak began in the capital, Pyongyang, in April.
While state media did not elaborate on the cause of the outbreak, the city staged several massive public events that month, including a military parade and large gatherings where most people did not wear masks.
“Holding a military parade attended by a large crowd, when Omicron was furious in neighboring China, shows that Pyongyang was too confident in its abilities to fight and prevent the virus,” said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute, to the AFP news agency.
North Korea is likely to experience “great chaos” due to the rapid spread of Omicron, he said, given that the country currently reports nearly 20,000 cases in a single day.
“If the death toll from Omicron rises, Pyongyang may have to ask for China’s support,” he added.
China, Pyongyang’s main ally, is trying to stamp out dozens of outbreaks of the coronavirus and has imposed lockdowns and restrictions on cities like Dandong, the main crossing point into North Korea.
He said Thursday that he was ready to provide assistance. Pyongyang previously rejected his offer to send vaccines.