SEOUL – North Korea reported a dramatic increase in suspected coronavirus infections and deaths on Saturday as it struggled to contain its first reported outbreak, which the country’s leader Kim Jong-un said could be “the biggest crisis since the foundation of our nation.”
State media said a further 174,400 people had symptoms, such as fever, that could be due to Covid-19, nearly a tenfold jump from the 18,000 cases reported on Friday. He also said 21 more people had died in connection with the outbreak, bringing the country’s total to 27. But reports did not say how many of the new infections or deaths were definitively linked to Covid-19 through testing.
“North Korea is only reporting ‘people with fever’ because it doesn’t have enough test kits,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “Some of the people with fever may not be real patients, but there could be many more cases among asymptomatic people without fever. So the actual number of people infected is likely to be higher than what the North announced.”
Most of the recently reported deaths were caused by “drug overdoses and other negligence caused by lack of knowledge in scientific treatment,” North Korean health officials said during a high-level meeting on Saturday. At the meeting, Kim criticized the Northern Workers’ Party health officials for “incompetence” and “irresponsibility”, the central Korean state news agency said.
After insisting for years that it had no cases of Covid-19 and rejecting offers of humanitarian aid, North Korea admitted on Thursday that an outbreak began in late April. The country has recorded a total of 524,400 people with Covid-like symptoms since the end of last month. State media said Saturday that 243,630 had fully recovered and 280,810 were still in quarantine.
Health experts have long expressed concern about the North’s ability to fight a major coronavirus outbreak because of its tattered public health system and low vaccination rate. International health organizations and the South Korean government have said they are ready to send vaccines, therapies and other aid if the North requests it.
State media reports on Saturday did not indicate whether the North would consider accepting such assistance, but suggested a faulty public health system.
Kim was quoted as telling health officials to learn from “the disease control policies, achievements and experiences of advanced nations”, particularly the “abundant epidemiological achievements and experiences of the Chinese Communist Party and its people”.
North Korea appeared to be following its ally China’s extreme Covid restrictions playbook when it declared a “maximum emergency” this week, ordering all cities and counties in the country of 25 million to close. It also ordered them to isolate “every work unit, production unit and residential unit from one another”.
The government said it was studying how to mobilize “all national means and resources” to provide patients with the medicines they need.
At Saturday’s meeting, Kim said North Korea was seeing “no uncontrollable spread of the virus between regions”, only infections in closed areas and units. He also said most of the symptoms reported were mild.
Kim said that while “the spread of the malicious virus could be the biggest crisis since the founding of our nation”, it could be overcome if the Workers’ Party and the public were “united as one”, according to state media. reports.