Kovid Outbreak in North Korea: What You Need to Know

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Seoul – The coronavirus epidemic has finally entered North Korea, a poor country with a fragile healthcare system and no vaccine program.

If the statistics are accurate, the country looks set to begin the catastrophe that the rest of the world will face in early 2020: a national health crisis that will rapidly overwhelm a healthcare system already under pressure with the most vulnerable. At the highest risk of death.

Here’s what to look for and tactics to help ease the way.

The spread of Kovid in North Korea

On May 12, North Korea reported an unspecified number of BA.2 omicron submarine cases of its first Kovid outbreak. Until then, North Korea has maintained that there are no positive developments, although many experts have questioned the veracity of that claim.

The disease appears to have spread rapidly, with more than 1.7 million suspected cases reported, according to state media on Wednesday. North Korea has called the cases “fever,” an apparent pronunciation of Covid-19, as they probably lack the ability to make accurate diagnoses due to a lack of test kits.

William Hanez, co-director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, says firm estimates for the number of deaths per case for BA.2 have not yet been fully established, but they have been shown to stay close to the original virus first hit in 2020. . The death toll at the time was about 0.5 percent, which would translate to 125,000 people in North Korea.

“The notion that Omicron is mild is false, as we see that those who have been vaccinated have a significantly lower risk of serious illness and death,” Maria Van Kerkhov warned of the Kovid-19, led by the World Health Organization, at a briefing on Tuesday. . “This description is really grim, because people think they are not at risk.”

So far, the number of reported casualties is much lower. As of Wednesday, at least 61 “fever” patients had died, including problems related to medical negligence and complications from drug use.

North Korea has a population of about 25 million and a relatively young age, with an average age of about 35, and therefore a lower risk of serious illness and death than the elderly population.

Nevertheless, world health experts are concerned about the emergence of a new variant from North Korea. “Where there is uncontrolled transmission, there is always a risk of new forms,” ​​Michael Ryan, the WHO’s director of health emergency, said in a briefing on Tuesday when asked about North Korea.

North Korea has for the first time acknowledged a coronavirus outbreak

Malnutrition and sanitation

Outside of the country’s privileged capital, Pyongyang, residents suffer from chronic malnutrition, and according to the United Nations and UNICEF, about 40 percent of the population suffers from malnutrition.

In 2020, the United Nations estimates that about one-third of North Korea’s population has “limited access to adequate health care.” Although access to water, sanitation and hygiene services differs between rural and urban areas, access to such services is generally poor everywhere, and by 2020, the United Nations estimates that more than one-third of North Korea lacks access to safe drinking water.

Challenges in the delivery of healthcare

North Korea claims that it has free healthcare services for all its citizens, but in reality it applies to Pyongyang’s rich and elite due to the country’s chronic lack of medical supplies and infrastructure.

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With the exception of a few hospitals in Pyongyang, most hospitals in North Korea are poorly equipped and lack reliable supply of electricity and heating. As a result, many North Koreans turn to informal healthcare practitioners who work illegally in their homes or to black-market drug dealers.

In the wake of the Kovid-19 outbreak, leader Kim Jong Un has mobilized medical units of the North Korean military to deliver medicines to pharmacies with 24-hour availability. But the reach of his order was limited to pharmacies in Pyongyang.

North Korea’s healthcare system also faces logistical and systemic problems, including a lack of undefined intensive care and emergency transportation, says David Hong, a pediatric neurosurgeon who last visited North Korea in November 2019 for a humanitarian medical visit.

Hong said international sanctions had limited North Korea’s ability to repair and acquire new parts for machines, preventing it from providing its own medical care.

In a 2021 report to the United Nations, North Korea said it was fighting “a lack of capacity for health workers, a low technical base of pharmaceutical and medical equipment plants, and a lack of essential medicines.” The country added that some of its pharmaceutical, vaccination and medical appliance plants do not meet WHO production standards and are not adequate for local demand.

With Biden’s visit to the region, China has brought North Korea closer than ever

Drugs, lack of access to supplies

North Korea also had a shortage of drugs before the border closed in 2019, due to a lack of funding from donors to drug companies and restrictions on local production, said Nagy Shafiq, a former WHO office manager in Pyongyang, who was last there. May 2019.

The most urgent needs of the country are test kits, personal protective equipment and medicines – in particular, anti-viral drugs used in the treatment of Covid-19, he added.

Hong said North Korea would probably not be able to increase production of such supplies, which would limit the country’s ability to contain the outbreak and weaken healthcare workers.

“It could be very catastrophic for the people of North Korea,” Hong said. “And with limited contact with experienced physicians, what is new and difficult to manage illness for most of the world is that they need to set their own example of appropriate treatment.”

North Korean Air Corio planes flew to the Chinese city of Shenyang on Monday to pick up medical supplies, local media reported. China’s foreign ministry did not confirm the media report, but said it was willing to help North Korea in its fight against Kovid.

Food shortages and home remedies

Kim has restricted travel across the country and the response is being conducted at the “inminban” level, said Zero Ishimaru, founder of the neighboring watch-like monitor system, Rimjingang of Japan-based news service Asia Press, which has informants in North Korea.

The state media has emphasized on treatment at home. In a story titled “How to Treat Fever Patients”, official Rodong Sinmun recommends “Korea-style treatment” for patients with mild symptoms. One of the recommended remedies is to make willow leaves in hot water and drink it thrice a day.

North Korea is heading for an ‘exciting’ winter: closed borders and food security in question

Last week, sources in the border region said they were concerned about the spread of Kovid, especially during the paddy planting season when labor demand is high and the supply of harvested paddy is declining in the autumn, Ishimaru said.

People with fever need to be treated at home without a clear way of eating – the fear of starvation in quarantine is growing, Ishimaru said. He said residents fear citywide and county-wide lockdowns like Shanghai without access to food.

“From the beginning of Covid, [cross-border] Business closes and the flow of drugs stops. The whole medical system is broken, “said Ishimaru. “People are at risk of dying because they can’t access drugs. This is a man-made crisis. The most important thing for North Korea right now is access to food. “

In Washington, Adam Taylor contributed to the report.

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