Kim Jong Un warns of ‘great turmoil’; 21 new ‘fever’ deaths

Limited testing capabilities suggest the numbers released are likely to represent only a tiny fraction of total cases.

An employee in hazmat suit disinfects a food shop in Pyongyang, North Korea.
North Korea had admitted its first outbreak of COVID-19 and announced 27 more deaths on Saturday [File: Jon Chol Jin/AP Photo]

North Korea on Saturday reported 21 deaths and tens of thousands more people with fever symptoms as leader Kim Jong Un said the outbreak of COVID-19 had put the country in “great turmoil”.

The isolated nation made an unprecedented admission of its first COVID outbreak earlier this week, after claiming no infections since the start of the pandemic more than two years ago.

State media announced the first suspected deaths from the virus on Friday.

The new deaths and cases increased the total numbers to 27 deaths and 524,440 illnesses amid a rapid spread of fever since late April. North Korea said 243,630 people had recovered and 280,810 remained in quarantine.

State media did not elaborate on how many of the fever cases and deaths were confirmed as COVID-19.

North Korea, one of only two countries in the world not to have had a COVID vaccination campaign, has limited testing capabilities suggesting the numbers released probably represent only a small fraction of total infections.

Amid the outbreak, the country’s ruling Workers’ Party met for an emergency meeting on the situation, according to KCNA.

“The spread of the malignant epidemic is a great turmoil to fall on our country since the founding,” the state news agency quoted Kim as telling the meeting.

He expressed optimism, however, that officials would be able to bring the outbreak under control, saying most transmissions were occurring within communities that had been isolated from one another and not spreading from region to region.

The country has imposed stronger preventive measures aimed at restricting the movement of people and supplies between cities and counties since Thursday, but state media’s descriptions of the steps suggest people are not being confined to their homes.

Experts say a failure to control the spread of COVID-19 could have devastating consequences in North Korea, given the state of its healthcare system and that its 26 million people are largely unvaccinated.

North Korea has been testing about 1,400 people a week, Harvard Medical School’s Kee Park who has worked on healthcare projects in the country, told Reuters news agency.

Since late April, 524,440 people have shown signs of fever, KCNA said.

Epidemic control officials told the Workers’ Party meeting that “in most cases, human casualties were caused by negligence including drug overdose due to lack of knowledge of treatment methods”, state media said.

North Korea previously rejected offers of COVID-19 vaccinations, and while South Korea, China and the WHO have all offered assistance to help deal with the outbreak, Pyongyang has yet to indicate whether it will accept their assistance.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies