North Korea has confirmed its first outbreak of COVID-19, raising fears of a humanitarian disaster in one of the world’s few unvaccinated countries as it enters a nationwide lockdown.
Authorities detected a subvariant of the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant, BA.2, in people in Pyongyang, the South’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Thursday, without giving further details on the number of confirmed cases.
“There has been the largest emergency incident in the country, with a hole in our emergency quarantine front, which has remained secure for the last two years and three months since February 2020,” the state broadcaster said. .
He added that “maximum” control efforts were being imposed on Pyongyang.
It later reported that North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un had “called on all cities and counties across the country to completely lock down their areas” with factories, businesses and homes closed and reorganized “to seamlessly and perfectly lock down general emptiness. of the malicious virus.
The North, which sealed its borders as of January 2020, it had been one of the few countries in the world not to report a COVID-19 outbreak, though analysts have long cast doubt on the official figures given the country’s long and porous land border with China.
The authorities in China are currently fighting dozens of virus outbreaks even in the border city of Dandong, which is the North’s main trade link with its neighbor. Pyongyang suspended incoming rail freight from China in late April as a result of the outbreaks, just four months after resuming service, according to NK News.
‘period of uncertainty’
The South Korean government responded with concern to the North Korean coronavirus outbreak, saying it hoped the disease “will no longer spread” and “the situation will stabilize soon.”
He also raised the possibility of support for North Korea, saying “inter-Korean cooperation in quarantine and medical care can be promoted at any time from a humanitarian point of view” amid global sanctions against the country over its nuclear and missile programs.
But analysts said Pyongyang’s public admission of the outbreak was not necessarily a sign that Kim would be willing to receive outside help, although it indicated the seriousness of the situation.
North Korea is likely to seek controls as draconian as China’s, which is to pursue a “COVID zero” strategy despite concerns that the restrictions are not sustainable.
“Pyongyang is likely to double down on lockdowns, although the failure of China’s zero-COVID strategy suggests that approach won’t work against the omicron variant,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said in emailed comments. electronic.
“North Korea is entering a period of uncertainty in managing its internal challenges and international isolation. The Kim regime would do well to swallow its pride and quickly seek donations of vaccines and therapeutics.”
The North has repeatedly rejected offers of vaccines from the United Nations-backed global vaccination initiative, and aid workers have warned it would struggle to handle a major coronavirus outbreak, given its crumbling health system.
“North Korea’s medical system is outdated, fragile and drastically ill-equipped to deal with a major outbreak,” said Tim Peters, a Christian aid worker who runs the organization Helping Hands Korea in Seoul. “The fact that 40 percent of the population needs food assistance speaks volumes about the weak immune systems of at least 11 million North Korean citizens. In short, the outdated health infrastructure and highly vulnerable population is a catastrophe waiting to happen. I sincerely hope that is not the case.”
Before the pandemic, the UN estimated that more than a quarter of North Koreans suffered from malnutrition. In July, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said the country was struggling to feed.
Kim, speaking at a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, said on Thursday that the North “will surely overcome the current situation” at all costs, saying that despite the closures, officials must carry out the development plan. economic and construction projects of the country.
Analysts said North Korea’s restrictions could add to the suffering of its people.
Alastair Morgan, who served as the UK’s ambassador to the North between 2005 and 2008, said that if Pyongyang authorities prevented “all travel between regions and places, this is likely to have serious consequences for citizens”.
He told Al Jazeera: “When I was there, there was some confidence in the inter-regional transportation of food and other supplies, although this may have changed to some extent under the DPRK’s measures to date. It will also restrict citizens’ access to clinics and hospital facilities.”
Musun Kim contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.