North Korea ‘in great turmoil’ over Covid death toll, says Kim Jong-un

Regime reports another 21 deaths as fresh outbreaks of coronavirus in South Africa and US concern health officials

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has warned his country has been thrown into “great turmoil” after reporting another 21 deaths, days after the secretive state first admitted it was in the grip of a coronavirus outbreak.

The nation’s total death toll now stands at 27, with 524,440 illnesses attributed to a rapid spread of fever consistent with Covid since late April. The regime said 243,630 people had recovered and 280,810 remained in quarantine. However, it did not specify how many of the cases and deaths had been confirmed as Covid-19 infections.

The wave of Covid-19 cases comes as other nations, such as South Africa, have reported fresh outbreaks of the disease while the US revealed last week that it had recorded more than 80m Covid cases since the pandemic began. More than one million people have died in the US from the disease, a figure described as “a tragic milestone” by President Joe Biden. These global developments indicate that the Covid pandemic is showing no signs of retreating.

North Korea imposed “maximum preventive measures” in a nationwide lockdown on Friday after conceding that its attempts to contain the virus over the past two years had failed.

“The spread of the malignant epidemic is a great turmoil to fall on our country since the founding,” Kim told an emergency meeting of the ruling Workers’ party. “But if we don’t lose focus in implementing epidemic policy and maintain strong organisation power … we can more than overcome the crisis.”

An employee of a North Korean general store disinfects the worktops
An employee of a North Korean general store disinfects the worktops. The secretive state has admitted it is in the grip of a coronavirus outbreak. Photograph: Cha Song Ho/AP

The outbreak presents a potentially serious risk to North Korea, which is not believed to have vaccinated its 26 million people. Its poorly resourced healthcare system would also struggle to cope with a major outbreak, say international health officials.

Kee Park of Harvard Medical School said the regime is testing only 1,400 people a week.

North Korea had previously insisted it had not recorded a single Covid case since it closed its borders at the start of the pandemic more than two years ago. That move cut off trade with China and inflicted more damage on an economy already battered by natural disaster and UN sanctions imposed in response to its nuclear and missile tests. After maintaining one of the world’s strictest border closures to shield its poor healthcare system, North Korea eventually reopened railroad freight traffic with China in January.

North Korea has shunned offers of Covid vaccines from China and Russia, and from the World Health Organization’s Covax scheme – apparently because administering the jabs would require outside monitoring.

In South Africa, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases reported last week that there had been 10,017 new Covid-19 cases a day. It was the first time since January that the institute had logged more than 10,000 new daily infections. Health authorities have warned the new surge of infections is driven by the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron sub-variants, which are now dominant in South Africa. The country only exited a fourth wave of Covid in January but the southern hemisphere winter months had long been seen as a potential problem.

However, the rapid spread of the new variants do not appear to have prompted an equivalent surge in hospitalisations, and severe disease, though another 114 deaths were reported on Friday, bringing the official total to 100,744.

Joe Phaahla, the South African health minister, said vaccines remained the best defence against the virus and denied that the country’s vaccination effort had struggled to meet even modest objectives. Just under 50% of the adult population of about 40 million have received at least one dose of vaccine, with only 45% of adults fully vaccinated. More than two-thirds of the population are thought to have some immunity based on past exposure to the virus.

In the US, health authorities have reported that coronavirus cases are surging in most counties in New York State, putting them on a high alert status under the national health guidelines which include recommendations for wearing masks indoors, including schools. By Thursday, new cases stood at more than 10,000 a day, a 47% increase in two weeks, with hospitalisations rising by 28% over that time period to more than 2,600 a day. About 77% of people are fully vaccinated in New York State, a figure that rises to 79% in New York City.

Last week, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) reclassified Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 as “variants of concern” and said they threatened a significant overall increase in Covid-19 cases in the EU in the coming weeks and months but not any “significant increase in infection severity”.


Justin McCurry in Tokyo, Jason Burke in Cape Town

The GuardianTramp

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