North Korea Says Its Covid Outbreak Is Spreading Fast

SEOUL — North Korea reported a dramatic surge in suspected coronavirus infections and deaths on Saturday as it struggled to contain its first reported outbreak, which the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said could be “the biggest crisis since our nation’s founding.”

State media said an additional 174,400 people had symptoms, like fever, that could be due to Covid-19, nearly a tenfold jump from the 18,000 such cases reported on Friday. It also said 21 more people had died in connection with the outbreak, bringing the country’s total to 27. But the reports did not say how many of the new infections or deaths had been definitively linked to Covid-19 through testing.

“North Korea is reporting only ‘people with fever’ because it does not have enough test kits,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies of the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “Some of the people with fever may not be actual patients, but there could be far more cases among asymptomatic people without any fever. So the actual number of infected people will likely be more than the North has announced.”

Most of the newly reported deaths were caused by “overdoses of medication and other negligence caused by a lack of knowledge in scientific treatment,” North Korean health officials were quoted as saying during a high-level meeting on Saturday. At the meeting, Mr. Kim criticized health officials in the North’s ruling Workers’ Party for “incompetence” and “irresponsibility,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

After insisting for years that it had no Covid-19 cases and rejecting offers of humanitarian aid, North Korea admitted on Thursday that an outbreak had begun in late April. The country has reported a total of 524,400 people with Covid-like symptoms since late last month. State media said on Saturday that 243,630 had recovered fully and 280,810 were still in quarantine.

Health experts have long expressed concern about the North’s ability to battle a major coronavirus outbreak because of its threadbare public health system and low vaccination rate. International health organizations and the South Korean government have said that they were ready to ship vaccines, therapeutics and other aid should the North ask for it.

The state media reports Saturday did not indicate whether the North would consider accepting such assistance, but they suggested a malfunctioning public health system.

Mr. Kim was quoted as telling health officials to learn from “the disease-control policies, achievements and experiences of advanced nations,” particularly the “abundant epidemiological achievements and experiences of the Chinese Communist Party and its people.”

North Korea seemed to be following its ally China’s playbook of extreme Covid restrictions when it declared a “maximum emergency” this week, ordering all cities and counties in the nation of 25 million to lock down. It also ordered them to isolate “each working unit, production unit and residential unit from each other.”

The government said it was studying how to mobilize “all national means and resources” to get patients the medicine they need.

At the meeting Saturday, Mr. Kim said North Korea was not seeing “any uncontrollable spread of the virus between regions,” only infections within locked-down areas and units. He also said that most of the symptoms reported had been mild.

Mr. Kim said that although “the spread of the malicious virus can be the biggest crisis since the founding of our nation,” it could be overcome if the Workers’ Party and the public were “united as one,” according to the state media reports.

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