North Korea Confirms First COVID-19 Death & Reports 350K People With Fever Symptoms

Less than a day after North Korea finally and officially announced its first COVID-19 case, more details have come out from the woodwork and the situation in the isolated country appears to be quite alarming.

Worst still, it’s impossible to tell if the reported statistics are lower than the actual number of infected due to the tough censorship and retrogressive medical supplies, which is only worsened by the drought and labour mobilisation problems that North Korea is already facing.

No one needs the second coming of the Black Death, thanks.

The Reported Statistics from North Korea

On Friday (13 May), the North Korean state media confirmed that at least one person who has contracted COVID-19 has died, while there are hundreds of thousands who have shown fever symptoms.

It is an unprecedented admission of an “explosive” outbreak, coming from a country that has consistently denied having any COVID-19 cases for the past two and a half years.

Needless to say, this could mark a terrible public health, economic, and political crisis for the isolated, Communist regime.

Although North Korea claimed that it had developed its own polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment last year to test for COVID-19 cases, other experts remain doubtful about their limited testing capabilities.

The experts worry that the statistics released merely represent a small fraction of the actual caseload, which could lead to thousands of deaths in North Korea, since it’s one of the only two countries that don’t have an active COVID-19 campaign.

Currently, 187,800 people have been quarantined and given treatment after a fever of unidentified origin “explosively spread nationwide” since late April, reported the KCNA news agency.

Nearly 350,000 have exhibited symptoms of the common fever, including 18,000 of which were new cases, KCNA said. Approximately 162,2000 have been treated, but the state media did not give any definitive numbers as to how many patients had tested positive.

The reported death toll for those with feverish symptoms is currently six, and it has been confirmed that one of them had contracted the Omicron variant of the virus.

Well, the North Koreans better pray that it’s Omicron, or else the consequences are unimaginable.

Kee Park, a practitioner from Harvard Medical School, has worked on healthcare projects in Korea. He recounted that the country has been testing about 1,400 per week, which isn’t enough to cover the 350,000 people that are showing symptoms.

Mr Kee added that the more concerning part is the number of people that are actually showing symptoms. Even with the most conservative case fatality rate of 1%, and assuming that it’s an Omicron variant dominant wave of COVID-19, North Korea can expect 3,500 deaths from this outbreak.

To put the numbers into better perspective, Singapore has a total 1.23 million cases over the course of the pandemic, with 1,361 deaths.

And let’s be mindful that Singapore is one of the best-case scenarios where majority of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, have access to best medical facilities and subsided medicine, and strict safety management measures in place.

North Korea will be tripling the number of deaths from this single outbreak, and it’s unknown if there have been previous outbreaks that were covered up.

Actions Taken By the North Korean Government

On Tuesday (10 May), North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the anti-virus command centre to check on the situation after declaring the “gravest state emergency” and ordering a national lockdown.

Though North Korea has mentioned that the outbreak began in April, it didn’t specify the site of the outbreak, or where the hotspots were.

However, the city has hosted several public events on April 15 and 25, which includes a military parade and a large gathering where the audience wasn’t masked.

Mr Kim merely “criticised that the simultaneous spread of fever with the capital area as the centre shows that there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system” they had already established, KCNA reported.

Not trying to be rude, but North Korea had an epidemic prevention system…?

Hence, Mr Kim has put forward that people with fever should be actively isolated as the top priority, while calling for scientific treatment methods and tactics to be developed as soon as possible, and to bolster disinfection work.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus calls to attention the potential for a major crisis in a country that has scarce medical resources.

Despite that, North Korea has repeatedly refused international help and kept its borders shut.

North Korea needs to channel their inner Singaporean and stop rejecting free stuff.

It’s like, you stand to gain everything and lose nothing. Maybe you’ll take a small blow to your pride, and it tousles your weird haircut, since it highlights that the Communist regime is inept and backwards, but that’s about it, right?

Nothing more shoulder padding can’t salvage.

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South Korea Pledges to Help

On the other side of the peninsula, South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, has plans to provide COVID-19 vaccines and other medical assistance to the North Koreans.

The president’s spokeswoman said that the government would be discussing the details with Pyongyang, but she didn’t release more details.

Mr Yoon’s pledge for support came a day after Mr Kwong Young-se, the next-in-line as the Unification Minister in his cabinet who is responsible for inter-Korean ties, gave his confirmation that he would be pushing for humanitarian assistance for the North.

Among other things, it will include COVID-19 vaccines, syringes, and other medical supplies.

A unification ministry spokesman declared on Friday (13 May) that 95.4 billion won (S$103.68 million) from an inter-Korean cooperation fund will be committed to facilitating exchanges in the health and medical sectors.

Meanwhile, a US State Department spokesperson said that the Biden administration has no plans to send vaccines to North Korea, but it supports international efforts to provide aid to the vulnerable citizens there. He also urges North Korea to allow the humanitarian aid to reach those in need. 

There’s no need for unnecessary suffering when your neighbouring countries and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are offering an olive branch towards the you, with vaccines hanging off every inch of the stick.

Let the North Koreans get the help they need.

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Featured Image: Shutterstock / Maxim Studio