North Korea reports first Covid-19 outbreak, declares emergency

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(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 27, 2021, a health official sprays disinfectant as part of preventive measures against Covid-19, at the Daesong department store in Pyongyang. – North Korea confirmed its first-ever case of Covid-19 on May 12, 2022, with state media declaring it a “serious national emergency incident” after more than two years of allegedly keeping the pandemic at bay. (Photo by KIM Won Jin/AFP)

North Korea has confirmed its first-ever case of Covid-19 and declared a “serious national emergency”, with leader Kim Jong Un pledging to “eliminate” the virus, state media said on Thursday.

The impoverished, nuclear-armed country has never admitted a case of Covid-19, with the government imposing a rigid coronavirus blockade of its borders since the pandemic began in 2020.

But samples taken from fever patients in the capital were “consistent” with the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.

Senior officials, including leader Kim Jong Un, held a politburo crisis meeting to discuss the outbreak and announced they would implement a “maximum emergency” virus control system.

Kim said at the meeting that “the goal was to get the root out as quickly as possible,” according to KCNA.

“He assured us that due to the strong political consciousness of the people…we will surely overcome the emergency and win the emergency quarantine project,” he said.

Kim called for stricter border controls and lockdown measures, telling citizens “to completely block the spread of the malicious virus by completely locking down their areas in all cities and counties across the country.”

All business and production activities will be organized so that each work unit is “isolated” to prevent the spread of disease, KCNA added.

– No vaccines –
Experts believe North Korea has failed to vaccinate any of its 25 million people, after rejecting vaccination offers from the World Health Organization, China and Russia.

North Korea’s crumbling healthcare system would struggle to cope with a major virus outbreak, experts have said.

North Korea is surrounded by countries that have fought – or are still fighting to control – major outbreaks of Omicron.

South Korea, which has high vaccination rates, recently eased nearly all Covid-19 restrictions, with cases falling sharply after an Omicron-fueled spike in March.

Neighboring China, the only major world economy to maintain a zero Covid policy, is battling multiple outbreaks of Omicron.

Major Chinese cities, including the financial capital Shanghai, have been under strict lockdowns for weeks.

– Lockdown? –
Seoul-based specialist site NK News reported that areas of Pyongyang had been closed for two days.

“Several sources have also heard reports of panic buying due to uncertainty over the end of the lockdown,” the site reported, citing sources in Pyongyang.

North Korea has long boasted of its ability to keep the virus at bay.

During a military parade in 2020, Kim Jong Un repeatedly and profusely thanked citizens and military for their loyalty and for staying healthy in the face of the global coronavirus outbreak.

From January 3, 2020 to May 11 this year, there were no confirmed cases of Covid-19 and no reported deaths in North Korea, the World Health Organization said.

State media has previously reported on “epidemic prevention” measures, and civilians have sometimes been shown wearing masks in official photographs.

But at a huge military parade in Pyongyang late last month broadcast by state media, none of the thousands of participants or participants were seen wearing masks.

The health crisis in North Korea could potentially disrupt launches of banned weapons in the country, analysts have said.

Pyongyang has carried out more than a dozen weapons tests so far this year, including firing a full-range intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time since 2017.

Satellite images indicate North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear test, and the United States has warned it could happen as early as this month.

“It is possible to delay the nuclear test in order to focus on the fight against the coronavirus,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies, told AFP.

But he said if public fears of an outbreak were to spread, Kim could conduct a test “to divert that fear somewhere else”.

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