The nuclear-armed nation lacks virus tests and other health care resources, prompting speculations that the actual situation might be worse than what is officially being reported.
North Korea has reported 262,270 more suspected Covid-19 cases as its pandemic caseload neared 2 million – a week after the country acknowledged the outbreak and scrambled to slow infections in its unvaccinated population.
After maintaining a dubious claim that it had kept the virus out of the country for two and a half years, North Korea acknowledged its first Covid-19 infections May 12 and has reported its most recent cases on Thursday, describing a rapid spread.
The country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has called the outbreak a “great upheaval,” berated officials for letting the virus spread and restricted the movement of people and supplies between cities and regions.
The outbreak could be worse than officially reported since the country lacks virus tests and other health care resources and may be underreporting deaths to soften the political impact on Kim.
North Korea's anti-virus headquarters reported a single additional death, raising its toll to 63, which experts have said is abnormally small compared to the suspected number of coronavirus infections.
The South's Newsis news agency has said that North Korea's first confirmed Covid-19 outbreak spread after a massive military parade in Pyongyang in April, citing lawmakers briefed by the South's spy agency.
The outbreak has prompted the North to rethink its opposition to accepting and distributing vaccines, the Yonhap news agency said, citing the same lawmakers.
North Korea's first confirmed Covid-19 outbreak spread after a massive military parade in Pyongyang in April, Newsis news agency says, citing lawmakers briefed by South Korea's spy agency pic.twitter.com/70G8KxVM01— TRT World Now (@TRTWorldNow) May 19, 2022
The official Korean Central News Agency said more than 1.98 million people have become sick with fever since late April. Most are believed to have Covid-19, though only a few omicron variant infections have been confirmed. At least 740,160 people are in quarantine, the news agency reported.
Workers were mobilised to find people with suspected Covid-19 symptoms who were then sent to quarantine - the main method of curbing the outbreak since North Korea is short of medical supplies and intensive care units that lowered Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths in other nations.
State media images showed health workers in hazmat suits guarding Pyongyang’s closed-off streets, disinfecting buildings and streets and delivering food and other supplies to apartment blocks.
Despite the vast numbers of sick people and the efforts to curb the outbreak, state media describe large groups of workers continuing to gather at farms, mining facilities, power stations and construction sites.
Experts say North Korea cannot afford a lockdown that would hinder production in an economy already broken by mismanagement, crippling US-led sanctions over Kim's nuclear weapons ambitions and pandemic border closures.
Kee Park, a global health specialist at Harvard Medical School who has worked on health care projects in North Korea, said it will be challenging for North Korea to provide treatment for the already large number of people with Covid-19.
Deaths may possibly approach tens of thousands, considering the size of its caseload, and international assistance would be crucial, Park said.