Can North Korea control its ‘first’ major Covid outbreak?

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has put the country into a national lockdown after admitting a “first” outbreak of Covid-19.

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State media reported yesterday that a subvariant of the highly transmissible strain of Omicron has been discovered in the capital Pyongyang. No information was given on how many cases of the virus had been registered.

The notoriously secretive state has around 25 million inhabitants and, along with Eritrea, is one of only two countries in the world whose population is “completely unvaccinated against the corona virus”. The times reported.

“National Emergency”

Revealing the Covid outbreak, the officials Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said: “The greatest state emergency occurred, punching a hole in our emergency anti-epidemic frontline, which we have firmly defended for two years and three months since February 2020.”

The state outlet said Kim has vowed to root out further infections in line with the country’s zero-Covid strategy, describing it as a “serious emergency”.

The admission of an outbreak of Covid-19 marks “an abrupt change for a secretive country that had long insisted it had no cases of the virus”. The New York Times called. But it confirms the suspicions of “skeptical” experts who said “a lack of extensive testing and the North’s worn-out public health system” could explain the lack of cases.

The outbreak “poses a potentially serious risk” for the country as it has not vaccinated any of its residents and has a “poorly resourced healthcare system” that “would also struggle with a larger outbreak”. The guard reported.

Kim held an emergency Politburo meeting yesterday, KCNA said, calling on “all cities and counties across the country to thoroughly lock down their areas.” NK Newsa specialist news site based in Seoul, reported that areas in Pyongyang had been locked down for two days, with reports of panic buying surfacing.

According to KCNA, Kim has also ordered people to keep working, but said that “every work unit, production unit and housing unit” must be “kept apart from each other.” He also called for unity, the agency said, warning that “unscientific fear, lack of faith and weak will” were a “more dangerous enemy” than the “malignant virus.”

vaccination pariah

North Korea “has so far avoided vaccines offered by the UN-backed Covax distribution program,” The Guardian said, “possibly because administering the vaccines would require international monitoring.”

The leadership in Pyongyang “likely fears that intelligence gathered by international public health workers” will “expose the country’s development shortcomings and weaken the blind loyalty of its citizens.” The diplomat reported.

Vaccine delivery is also logistically complicated by “the North’s obsession with secrecy,” as well as its inability to “develop modern public health infrastructure” and its refusal to accept “any significant international aid.”

It’s also possible that “vaccine snobbery” influenced the decision to reject vaccines offered by the United Nations-backed program, the Asia-Pacific-focused news site added.

Observers said officials may have been discouraged from using the “less effective vaccines Sinovac and Russian Sputnik V” and “scared by early safety concerns surrounding the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

Caught in the spotlight

Why North Korea chose to admit an outbreak now could be explained by saying it was “too serious and too difficult to hide,” he said BBC Seoul correspondent Jean Mackenzie. Given that the pariah state has “no vaccines, poor healthcare and limited capacity to test people,” its “options are very limited right now.”

Authorities in Pyongyang “have decided unequivocally that they have no choice but to lock down the country,” she added. But “to do that, they just have to tell the people and the rest of the world”.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, agreed that the regime’s public acknowledgment of coronavirus cases must mean the outbreak is too big to hide, telling The Guardian: ” The public health situation must be serious.”

However, this “does not mean that North Korea will suddenly be open to humanitarian aid and take a more conciliatory stance towards Washington and Seoul,” he said.

The South Korean government has announced it will renew its offer of humanitarian aid in response to news of the outbreak. Pyongyang has not yet responded.

Go Myong-hyun, senior fellow at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul, narrated The Washington Post that for the North Korean leadership, admitting an outbreak is not about “shouting for help.” Instead, it is “probably more about demonstrating control”.

“I think the main reason why the regime is officially acknowledging the existence of Covid in the country is that it happened in Pyongyang and the regime knows that the world would find out about it sooner or later,” he added. Can North Korea control its ‘first’ major Covid outbreak?

Fry Electronics Team

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