SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Friday that six people have died and hundreds of thousands more have fallen ill amid an explosive spread of fever across the country, a day after acknowledging an outbreak of COVID-19 in a largely unvaccinated population for the first time since the pandemic began.
The true scale of North Korea’s coronavirus outbreak remains unclear, as North Korea – which lacks COVID-19 diagnostic kits and other medical equipment – said it had no not found why the fever had occurred. But some experts say the outbreak may have major consequences as North Korea’s health care infrastructure remains broken and much of the North’s unvaccinated population suffers from malnutrition.
North Korea’s official Central News Agency said on Friday that more than 350,000 people had been treated for a fever that had spread “explosively” across the country since late April and that 162,200 of them had been cured. He said 18,000 people had been found with fever symptoms on Thursday alone.
It was not immediately clear how many cases were COVID-19 because KCNA said the cause of the fever could not be identified.
KCNA said one of the six people who died was confirmed to have been infected with the omicron variant. Currently, he said 187,800 people in North Korea are in isolation for treatment.
North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown on Thursday to control its first recognized COVID-19 outbreak after maintaining a widely questioned claim for more than two years that it has completely beaten back the virus that has spread to nearly everyone. the places of the world.
State media said testing of virus samples taken on Sunday from an unknown number of people with fever in the capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant. The reports do not specify the number of cases.
Experts say a failure to slow coronavirus infections could have serious consequences as the country has a poor healthcare system and its 26 million people are believed to be mostly unvaccinated.
KCNA said Kim was made aware of the fever during his visit to the state’s emergency epidemic prevention headquarters on Thursday and criticized officials for failing to prevent “a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system.” “.
He said the spread of the fever was centered around the capital Pyongyang and nearby areas and stressed the importance of isolating all work, production and residential units from each other while providing residents with all amenities to curb the spread of the “malicious virus”.
“It is the most important challenge and the supreme task facing our party to quickly reverse the immediate public health crisis situation, restore stability in epidemic prevention and protect health and well-being. of our people,” Kim said, citing KCNA.
Describing its anti-coronavirus campaign as a matter of “national existence”, North Korea has severely restricted cross-border traffic and trade for the past two years and has even reportedly ordered troops to shoot any intruders on sight. cross its borders.
The border closures have further hit an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions against its nuclear weapons and missile program, pushing Kim at perhaps the most difficult time. of his reign since he took power in 2011.
North Korea tentatively reopened rail freight traffic between its border city of Sinuiju and Dandong in China in January, but China announced a halt to trade last month as it grapples with a spread of COVID- 19 in its border areas.
Hours after North Korea confirmed the outbreak on Thursday, North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles seaward, South Korea and Japan said, in what may have been a demonstration forcibly after leader Kim Jong Un publicly acknowledged the virus outbreak.
It was the North’s 16th round of missile launches this year as it pushes a tightrope aimed at forcing the United States to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and negotiate sanctions relief and other concessions in a position of strength.