Unvaccinated North Korea reports first COVID outbreak, goes into lockdown
12th May 2022

Seoul: North Korea has imposed a nationwide lockdown to control its first acknowledged COVID-19 outbreak after claiming for two years a perfect record keeping out the virus that has spread worldwide. The size of the outbreak wasn’t immediately known, but it could have serious consequences because the country has a poor health care system and its 26 million people are believed to be mostly unvaccinated. Some experts say the North, by its rare admission of an outbreak, may be seeking outside aid.

The official Korean Central News Agency said tests of samples collected Sunday from an unspecified number of people with fevers in the capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the omicron variant.

A schoolgirl wearing face mask, disinfects her hands before entering the Kumsong Secondary School No. 2 in the morning in Pyongyang, North Korea.Credit:AP

In response, leader Kim Jong-un called for a thorough lockdown of cities and counties and said workplaces should be isolated by units to block the virus from spreading, KCNA said.

The North’s government has shunned vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because those have international monitoring requirements.

During a ruling party Politburo meeting, Kim called for officials to stabilise transmissions and eliminate the infection source as fast as possible, while also easing the inconveniences to the public caused by the virus controls. Kim said “single-minded public unity is the most powerful guarantee that can win in this anti-pandemic fight,” KCNA said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered the nationwide lockdown at a meeting of the politburo on Thursday. Credit:KCNA

The North will likely double down on lockdowns, even though the failure of China’s “zero-COVID” approach suggests that approach doesn’t work against the fast-moving omicron variant, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University.

“For Pyongyang to publicly admit omicron cases, the public health situation must be serious,” Easley said. “This does not mean North Korea is suddenly going to be open to humanitarian assistance and take a more conciliatory line toward Washington and Seoul. But the Kim regime’s domestic audience may be less interested in nuclear or missile tests when the urgent threat involves coronavirus rather than a foreign military.”

North Korea’s previous coronavirus-free claim had been disputed by many foreign experts. But South Korean officials have said North Korea had likely avoided a huge outbreak, in part because it instituted strict virus controls almost from the start of the pandemic.

Early in 2020 — before the coronavirus spread around the world — North Korea took severe steps to keep out the virus and described them as a matter of “national existence”. It quarantined people with symptoms resembling COVID-19, all but halted cross-border traffic and trade for two years and is even believed to have ordered troops to shoot on sight any trespassers.

The extreme border closures further shocked an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile program, pushing Kim to perhaps the toughest moment of his rule since he took power in 2011.

North Korea had been one of the last places in the world without an acknowledged COVID-19 case. Turkmenistan, a similarly secretive and authoritarian nation in Central Asia, has reported no cases to the World Health Organisation, though its claim also is widely doubted by outside experts.

In recent months, some Pacific island nations that kept the virus out by their geographic isolation have recorded outbreaks. Only tiny Tuvalu, with a population around 12,000, has escaped the virus so far, while a few other nations – Nauru, Micronesia and Marshall Islands – have stopped cases at their borders and avoided community outbreaks.

North Korea’s confirmed outbreak comes as China — its close ally and trading partner — battles its biggest outbreak of the pandemic.

AP

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