COVID amid food insecurity: A perfect storm is brewing in N Korea

Karishma Krishna Kurup

Karishma Krishna Kurup

On May 12, North Korea reported the country’s first COVID outbreak, a significant public admission after two and a half years of stringent lockdowns and border closures. Since then, the country has seen its infection rates soar with over two million cases of  “fever” recorded.

North Korea has remained unyielding in its stance towards foreign aid, declining COVAX (the global vaccine sharing scheme) and providing no response to the offer of medicines and vaccines from South Korea. While its leader, Kim Jong Un, has declared that the virus is under control, the true scale of North Korea’s cases remains unclear.

Daily case numbers released by the government are related only to “fever” and rely on symptomatic screening. Omicron, the variant behind North Korea’s outbreak, is estimated to be asymptomatic in close to 40 percent of cases and there is concern that asymptomatic patients, who can still transmit the infection, are being missed.

Experts speculate that the situation may be far worse than the official reports, considering the tight-lipped policy of the country. According to the official account, the death toll since April is 68 which could be explained by Omicron’s low mortality rate compared with other variants. However, certain reports by the news agency Daily NK, suggest this might not be the full picture and highlight the severe consequences of COVID.

In September 2021, the Daily NK reported 45 soldiers among the corps (specialised military forces stationed in provinces of North Korea), had died from suspected COVID infections, although there were no official reports confirming this. Soldiers from the front line, second and third corps were among the victims. Recent news reports from the Daily NK also suggest many deaths among children of military families residing in the headquarters of the third corps following a suspected COVID infection. Worryingly, the underlying cause of death has been attributed not just to the virus but also to poor nutrition and the prescription of drugs like paracetamol and dimedrol at dosages higher than recommended for children.

North Korea lacks a stable healthcare system and vaccination service dedicated to children, which is undoubtedly worsening the crisis. While the assistance from United Nations agencies and non-governmental organisations has helped improve child nutrition in North Korea, close to 20 percent of children are still chronically malnourished, affecting their physical development and damaging their learning capacity.

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