By Gawon Bae and Helen Regan, CNN
North Korea has identified its first ever case of Covid-19, according to state media, which called the situation a “major national emergency.”
It’s unclear how many infections have been detected but state-run news agency KCNA reported on Thursday that cases of the Omicron variant had been found in the capital Pyongyang.
Samples collected from a group of people experiencing fevers on May 8 tested positive for the highly contagious Omicron variant, KCNA reported.
An outbreak of Covid-19 could prove dire for North Korea. The country’s dilapidated health care infrastructure is unlikely to be up to the task of treating a large number of patients with a highly infectious disease.
North Korea had not previously acknowledged any coronavirus cases, though few believe that a country of around 25 million people has been spared by a virus that has infected millions worldwide.
On Thursday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered lockdown measures in all cities and directed the distribution of medical supplies the party had reportedly stocked in case of a Covid emergency, according to KCNA.
Kim also chaired a meeting of the country’s powerful politburo, which agreed to implement “maximum” emergency anti-epidemic measures, though it is unclear what they involve.
According to KCNA, the politburo criticized the country’s anti-epidemic sector for “carelessness, laxity, irresponsibility and incompetence,” saying it “failed to respond sensitively” to increasing Covid-19 cases across the world, including in neighboring regions.
Kim said the country would overcome the “unexpected Covid-19 outbreak,” KCNA reported.
To date, North Korea has been able to prevent a major outbreak of Covid-19 cases thanks to a series of draconian public health measures.
North Korea’s borders have been sealed since January 2020 to keep the virus at bay, despite the knock-on effects on trade with Beijing, an economic lifeline the impoverished country needs to keep its people from going hungry.
Zero vaccines could spell disaster
Isolated and impoverished North Korea is not known to have imported any coronavirus vaccines, though it is eligible for the global Covid-19 vaccine sharing program, Covax. In February, Covax reportedly scaled back the number of doses allocated to North Korea because the country failed to arrange for any shipments, according to Reuters.
Also in February, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea Tomás Ojea Quintana called on the international community to provide North Korea “with 60 million doses of vaccinations to cover at least two shots of the entire population.”
North Korea has also not provided information on its Covid-19 vaccination situation to the World Health Organization (WHO), according to its latest situation report.
Assuming most of North Korea’s population is unvaccinated, a Covid outbreak would be disastrous.
In the US earlier this year, Omicron fueled an unprecedented spike in Covid-19 cases, overwhelming hospitals with mostly unvaccinated patients. In Hong Kong, which had previously avoided high cases and deaths, a deadly Omicron wave quickly spun out of control, stretching morgues and hospitals to breaking point. At one stage, Hong Kong reported more deaths per million people than any country or territory in the world due to a large percentage of the city’s elderly being unvaccinated.
But the US and Hong Kong have robust health systems. An outbreak in North Korea, which has limited testing capabilities, inadequate medical infrastructure, and which has isolated itself from the outside world, could quickly become deadly.
The prospect appears not to be lost on Kim Jong Un, who recently warned of “grave consequences” after he fired several senior officials who failed to enforce North Korea’s stringent Covid-19 prevention. KCNA has also said that a potential breach, such as an incident involving a symptomatic defector from South Korea, might lead to a “deadly and destructive disaster.”
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