North Korea said Saturday it found nearly 220,000 more people with symptoms of the fever, even as leader Kim Jong Un said progress was in slowing down the largely undiagnosed spread of COVID-19 among the unvaccinated population of 26 million.
The epidemic has raised concerns about serious tragedies in a poor isolated country with one of the worst health systems in the world and a high tolerance for the suffering of civilians. Experts say North Korea is almost certainly downplaying the true scale of the viral spread, including a surprisingly small death toll, to mitigate the political blow to Kim as he experiences his most difficult moment in his decade of rule.
About 219,030 North Koreans with the fever were identified 24 hours to 18 hours on Friday, the fifth consecutive daily increase of about 200,000, according to the North Korean Central News Agency, which links the information to the government’s anti-virus headquarters.
North Korea said more than 2.4 million people became ill and 66 died since unidentified fever began to spread rapidly in late April, although the country was able to identify only a few cases as COVID-19 due to a lack of test materials. After supporting the dubious claim for 2 1/2 years that it perfectly blocked the virus from invading its territory, the North last week acknowledged omicron infections.
Due to a lack of public health funds, the North has mobilized more than a million health workers to find people with fevers and isolate them in quarantine facilities. Kim also imposed strict restrictions on movement between cities and towns and mobilized thousands of troops to help with the delivery of drugs to pharmacies in the capital Pyongyang, which was the center of the outbreak.
During a meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo on Saturday, Kim insisted the country was beginning to take control of the outbreak, and called for heightened vigilance to maintain a “positive trend” in the anti-virus campaign, KCNA reported. But Kim also seemed to hint at easing the response to the pandemic to alleviate his economic problems by urging officials to actively change the country’s preventative measures depending on the changing virus situation and devise various plans to revive the national economy.
The KCNA said members of the Politburo discussed ways to “more effectively develop and implement” the government’s anti-virus policy in line with how “the virus is steadily controlled and reduced,” but the report did not specify what was discussed.
Even introducing what the state media called “maximum” preventive measures, Kim stressed that his economic goals still needed to be met, and state media described large groups of workers continuing to gather on farms, mining, power plants and construction sites.
Experts say Kim cannot afford to bring the country to a standstill, leading to further shock to a fragile economy strained by decades of mismanagement, the defeat of US-led sanctions for its nuclear weapons ambitions and the closure of borders as a result of a pandemic.
State media have shown an urgent push for agricultural companies to protect crops amid a prolonged drought, alarming developments in a country that has long suffered from food security, and to complete large-scale housing and other construction projects that Kim considers crucial to his rule. .
The virus has not prevented Kim from holding and attending important public events for his leadership. State media reported that he cried during Saturday’s state funeral of high-ranking North Korean military official Hyun Chol-hee, who is believed to have been involved in training Kim as a future leader under his father Kim Jong Il.
The optimistic description of North Korea’s response to the pandemic contrasts sharply with outside concerns about dire consequences, including deaths that could reach tens of thousands. Concerns have grown as the country appears to be trying to resolve the isolation crisis by ignoring aid from South Korea and the United States. The South Korean government has said it cannot confirm reports that this week North Korea sent planes to return emergency supplies from China’s ally.
The North has in recent years abandoned the millions of doses of vaccine offered by the UN-supported COVAX distribution program, possibly because of the international control requirements attached to these injections. WHO and UNICEF have said North Korea has so far not responded to their requests for virus data or offers of help, and some experts say the North may be willing to accept a certain level of deaths to gain immunity through infection.
Perhaps at least some cases of North Korean fever are related to non-COVID-19-related diseases, such as water-borne diseases, which, according to South Korean intelligence officials, have become a growing problem for the North in recent years. lack of medical supplies.
But experts say the explosive rate of spread and North Korea’s lack of testing to detect large numbers of carriers of the virus in the early stages of infection suggest that the country’s COVID-19 crisis is probably worse than the fever figures. They say the real deaths from viruses in the country will be much higher than official figures, and that mortality will increase in the coming weeks, given the intervals between infections and death.
North Korea’s recognition of the COVID-19 outbreak came amid provocative weapons tests, including the country’s first demonstration of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 in March, when Kim goes to the border to put pressure on the United States to accept the North as the North state and negotiates economic concessions and security from a position of strength.
The problems associated with the economic downturn and the COVID-19 outbreak are unlikely to slow its campaign pressure. U.S. and South Korean officials said the North is likely to conduct another ballistic missile test or nuclear explosive test during or around President Joe Biden’s visits to South Korea and Japan this week.
Nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled for more than three years over disagreements over how to ease US-led sanctions in exchange for northern disarmament steps.