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North Korea's Covid outbreak continues to spread

North Korea said the number of suspected coronavirus infections in the vulnerable, isolated country was nearing 1.5 million on Tuesday, and that the virus had caused 56 deaths there since April.

State media has recently been reporting hundreds of thousands of new patients a day with fevers, without saying how many of them had tested positive for the coronavirus. North Korea's health system probably does not have the capacity for large-scale testing.

Before the country's current Covid outbreak was first reported last week, North Korea had claimed for more than two years that it had not had a single case of the coronavirus. Most of the country's 25 million people are unvaccinated against the virus, and the country has rebuffed repeated international offers of millions of vaccine doses.

The World Health Organization has offered to provide technical support and supplies to fight the outbreak, including diagnostic tests, essential medicines and vaccines, the organization's director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Tuesday.

"W.H.O. is deeply concerned at the risk of further spread of Covid-19 in the country, particularly because the population is unvaccinated and many have underlying conditions putting them at risk of severe disease and death," he said at a news conference in Geneva.

North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, remained locked down on Monday under a "maximum emergency epidemic prevention system," according to the state-run Korea Central News Agency, and the military was reported to be distributing medication. Officials had earlier ordered all cities and counties across the nation to lock down, saying the coronavirus was spreading "explosively."

Uncontrolled spread of the virus could be particularly lethal in North Korea. The country's already meager health system has been undercut and drained of resources by some of the world's strictest pandemic border closures, cutting off supplies from China. The few international aid organizations that had been operating there have been forced to withdraw.

North Korea has also been facing its worst food crisis in decades, after extensive flooding in 2021, probably leaving its people more malnourished and in poorer health than before.

"Medicines of any kind are scarce in the country, and the health care infrastructure is extremely fragile, lacking medical supplies such as oxygen and other Covid-19 therapeutics," Lina Yoon, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote in a report, urging governments and the United Nations to try to persuade the country to accept outside aid. "North Koreans are facing a uniquely acute catastrophe, and the world should not turn away," Ms. Yoon wrote.

The recent restrictions and the isolation of people with suspected coronavirus infections could be catastrophic for North Koreans who were already vulnerable, including children, lactating mothers and older people, a spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement.

Some outside observers of North Korea cautioned against taking state media reports about the pandemic at face value. They cast doubt on whether the country had really been spared past waves of the virus and questioned why the country had suddenly begun giving detailed daily reports on the outbreak.

Choi Jung-hun, who worked as a physician and local public health official in North Korea before fleeing the country in 2011, said the reports could be a way for the government to justify keeping the population under oppressive measures as the economic impact of isolation deepens. He said that the tally of 56 reported deaths as suspiciously low, compared with the reported number of suspected cases, especially given the state of the country's health care system.

"The internal discontent is high, and they need an explanation," Mr. Choi said.

[Source: By Victoria Kim, The New York Times, 17May22]

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