SEOUL — When North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un acknowledged a Covid-19 outbreak last week, he ordered his government to learn from China’s “success” in fighting the virus. What he failed to say is that attempting to monitor China’s pandemic response could steer its impoverished country toward catastrophe.
China has used strict lockdowns, mass testing and vaccinations to keep the number of cases low during the pandemic. North Korea – which it claims is experiencing an explosive outbreak of the virus – lacks the basic therapies and food supplies that China has mobilized to enforce extreme restrictions in cities like Wuhan, Xi’an and Shanghai.
Now public health experts are warning that Mr Kim’s desire to follow the Chinese model will only exacerbate the impact of a rapidly expanding disaster. The number of new suspected patients in North Korea has already risen from 18,000 last Thursday to hundreds of thousands a day this week, although it is impossible to know the true extent of the outbreak.
North Korea declared itself Covid-free for two years until it first confirmed an outbreak last Thursday. Most people have not been vaccinated and the country is so isolated that when an estimated two million people died in a famine in the mid-1990s, the outside world knew nothing about it until the bodies of starving North Koreans began to wash ashore. the shallow river that borders China.
Without enough testing kits to accurately measure the extent of the outbreak, North Korea has relied on the number of “people with a fever,” not the number who have tested positive for the virus. It has reported 62 deaths of nearly 1.7 million suspected patients. On Wednesday, state media claimed a million people had already recovered from a fever, though experts doubt the figures reported by North Korea are reliable.
“I don’t think North Korea is being honest about the death toll,” said Jacob Lee, an infectious disease specialist at Hallym University Medical Center in South Korea. †
North Korea cannot feed its own people at the best of times. The state’s ration system collapsed during the famine in the 1990s and never recovered, leaving people to their own devices. If North Koreans were placed under the kind of extreme lockdowns seen in China, outside health experts say, the government would be unable to meet basic needs.
“For North Koreans, that would mean going back to the rationing system,” said Dr. Lee. “I doubt it will work. Even China had problems with logistics and food supply for people in closed-off cities.”
North Korea appears to be pursuing a strategy similar to China’s, but with variations. It has ordered all cities and counties to shut down but urged them to continue “organizing work and production”. Although traffic between cities and provinces was banned, people are still allowed to move within their districts and report for work on farms and factories, according to Asia Press, a Japan-based website that reports on reports with the help of informants in the region. North Korea. country.
There was also an extensive campaign to monitor temperatures in factories and residential complexes, and according to Asia Press, people were allowed to go to informal markets for food and other necessities.
Closing the informal markets could be devastating as most North Koreans rely on them to supplement their paltry government rations. “I don’t think the regime would go so far as to shut down markets completely,” said Lee Tae-kyung, who worked as a doctor in North Korea until he fled the country in 2006 as part of a refugee influx. “When it tried in the past, people pushed back and yelled at the police. It is a matter of life or death.”
Contrary to Kim’s praise for China’s coronavirus policies, a growing number of health organizations and world leaders have criticized them as untenable. China’s borders remain closed and outside experts have rarely been seen since the start of the pandemic. Foreign investment is drying up and some well-educated young people are leaving the country instead of going through another lockdown.
“Countries like South Korea could fight an Omicron outbreak with relatively few fatalities because they had solid public health systems, high vaccination rates and therapies, and because their people were relatively healthy and well-nourished,” said Jung Jae-hun, a professor preventive medicine at Gachon University in South Korea, citing a variant of the virus. “North Korea doesn’t have any of that.”
The origin of the North Korean outbreak is still unclear, but in recent weeks, Mr. Kim mobilized tens of thousands of people without masks for a major military parade in Pyongyang, the capital, to celebrate the country’s growing nuclear capability. He also mobilized students and workers this month to help plant rice in rural areas, a vital task in a country suffering from chronic grain shortages.
North Korean officials first found infections in a group of students attending the military parade, including one who apparently got the virus from a relative who had recently visited China, said Daily NK, a Seoul-based website reporting on North Korea. Korea. North Korean state media reported that more cases of fever had been found in Pyongyang, as well as in the southern provinces where most of the rice plantations took place.
When the outbreak was announced last week, it quickly became apparent that the secretive nation was desperately unprepared. North Korean officials said the fever cases began to spread late last month. But as of Saturday, the country had only confirmed 168 cases of Covid, according to Ryu Yong-chol, a disease control official who appeared on state television on Monday.
“The drugs provided by the state have not been delivered to residents on time through the pharmacies,” admitted Mr Kim.
China’s isolationist approach to the pandemic is perhaps what most appeals to Mr Kim as he tries to respond to the crisis and maintain his divine authority over his people. When Seoul tried to send an invitation this week to discuss pandemic aid, North Korea refused to accept it. It has also declined donations from Covax, the global vaccine program. The country has never officially explained why, but it has been reluctant to accept aid shipments that would require observers to be allowed into the country.
South Korean media reported Tuesday that three North Korean cargo planes made a return flight to the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang on Monday to pick up 150 tons of emergency aid. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to confirm the report.
Still, Mr. Lee, the doctor who once worked in North Korea, doubts the situation will improve any time soon. “What you consider bad is different from what the North Korean regime considers bad,” he said. “When millions died during the famine, the regime didn’t back down.”
Li You research contributed.