North Korea has reported another large jump in illnesses believed to be COVID-19 as the government mobilised a “powerful force” of soldiers to distribute drugs and deployed thousands of health workers to help trace new infections.
The North’s anti-virus headquarters said on Tuesday that another 269,510 people were found with fevers and six people died, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
That raises North Korea’s total tally of people who became ill with fever since late April to 1,483,060 and its deaths to 56.
North Korea, which confirmed its first coronavirus outbreak last week, lacks testing supplies to confirm coronavirus infections in large numbers, and the report did not say how many of the fever cases were COVID-19.
The outbreak is almost certainly greater than the fever tally, considering the lack of tests and resources to monitor and treat the people who are sick. North Korea’s virus response is mostly isolating people with symptoms at shelters, and as of Tuesday, at least 663,910 people were in quarantine.
In addition to lacking vaccines for its 26 million people, North Korea also grapples with malnourishment and other conditions of poverty and lacks public health tools, including antiviral drugs or intensive care units, which suppressed hospitalisations and deaths in other countries.
The North’s number of deaths may surge in the coming weeks as those who develop symptoms later succumb to the illness.
KCNA said on Tuesday that a “powerful force” of the army’s medical corps has been deployed to improve the supply of medicines in the capital, Pyongyang, the centre of the epidemic, following an order by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
The team’s mission was aimed at “defusing the public health crisis” in Pyongyang, it said.
The types of medicine being given to sick people were unclear, however.
‘Intensive medical examination’
Some senior members of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful politburo visited pharmacies and medicine management offices to check supply and demand, KCNA said in another dispatch, after Kim criticised the ineffective distribution of drugs.
“They called for establishing a more strict order in keeping and handling the medical supplies, maintaining the principle of prioritising the demand and convenience of the people in the supply,” KCNA said.
Tracing efforts were also intensified, with some 11,000 health officials, teachers and medical students joining an “intensive medical examination of all inhabitants” across the country to locate and treat people with fever.
Still, various sectors of the national economy are maintaining production and construction, while taking thorough anti-virus measures, KCNA added. Kim had ordered that limited activity be allowed in each city and county.
South Korea has publicly offered to send vaccines, medicine and health personnel, but North Korea has so far ignored the proposal amid icy relations between the rivals over a deadlock in larger nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Some experts say Kim’s praise of China’s pandemic response during a virus meeting last week indicates that the North would be more willing to receive help from its main ally.
Experts say the only realistic outside help would be offering limited supplies of vaccines to reduce deaths among high-risk groups, including the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions, as it is too late to stop the broad spread of the virus across the North’s population.
“With the country yet to initiate COVID-19 vaccination, there is risk that the virus may spread rapidly among the masses unless curtailed with immediate and appropriate measures,” Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Southeast Asia, said in a statement.
Shee said WHO is ready to provide North Korea with technical support to increase testing and with essential medicines and medical supplies.
The United States also said it was concerned about the outbreak’s potential effect on North Koreans, and supports vaccine aid to the country.
“To this end, we strongly support and encourage the efforts of US and international aid and health organisations in seeking to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19 … and to provide other forms of humanitarian assistance to vulnerable groups in the country,” said a spokesperson for the US Department of State.