SEOUL, South Korea — (AP) — During a recent late night visit to a pharmacy, a double-masked Kim Jong Un lamented the slow delivery of medicine. Separately, the North Korean leader’s lieutenants quarantined hundreds of thousands of suspected COVID-19 patients and urged people with mild symptoms to take willow leaf or honeysuckle tea.
Despite what Northern propaganda describes as an all-out effort, fear is palpable among citizens, according to South Korean defectors with contacts in the North, and some outside observers fear the outbreak is getting worse, with much of an impoverished, unvaccinated population lacks sufficient hospital care and struggles to afford even simple medications.
“North Koreans know that so many people around the world have died from COVID-19, so they are worried that some of them will die too,” said Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector, citing his phone calls with contacts in the North Korean city of Hyesan. She said people who can afford it buy traditional medicines to deal with their anxieties.
Since admitting what it called its first national COVID-19 outbreak a week ago, North Korea has been struggling to manage a growing health crisis that has heightened public anxiety over a virus. whom she previously claimed to have kept at bay.
The country’s response to the pandemic appears largely focused on isolating suspected patients. That may be all it can really do, as it lacks the vaccines, anti-viral pills, intensive care units and other medical assets that have kept millions of sick people alive in other countries.
North Korean health authorities said on Thursday that a rapidly spreading fever had killed 63 people and sickened around 2 million others since late April, while around 740,000 people remained in quarantine. Earlier this week, North Korea said its total number of COVID-19 cases stood at 168 despite rising fever cases. Many foreign experts doubt the numbers and believe the scale of the outbreak is underestimated to avoid public unrest that could harm Kim’s leadership.
State media said one million officials had been mobilized to identify suspected patients. Kim Jong Un also ordered the deployment of army medics to support drug delivery to pharmacies, ahead of a dawn visit to pharmacies in Pyongyang on Sunday.
North Korea is also using state media – newspapers, state television and radio – to offer advice on how to deal with the virus to citizens, most of whom do not have access to the internet and foreign news. .
“It is crucial that we find every person with symptoms of fever so that they can be isolated and treated, to basically block off the spaces where the infectious disease could spread,” said Ryu Yong Chol, an official at the headquarters of the Pyongyang antivirus. Television Wednesday.
State television aired infomercials showing animated characters advising people to seek medical attention if they had breathing problems, coughed up blood or passed out. They also explain what medications patients can take, including home remedies such as honey tea. The country’s leading newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, advised people with mild symptoms to infuse 4-5 grams of willow or honeysuckle leaves in hot water and drink them three times a day.
“Their guidelines don’t make sense. It’s like the government asking people to contact doctors only if they have breathing difficulties, that is, right before they die,” said former North Korean agriculture official Cho. Chung Hui, who fled to South Korea in 2011. “My heart aches when I think about my brother and sister in North Korea and their suffering.
Kang, who runs a firm analyzing the North Korean economy, said his contacts in Hyesan told him North Korean residents were urged to carefully read Rodong Sinmun’s reports on how the country is trying to improve. stem the epidemic.
Since May 12, North Korea has banned travel between regions, but it has not attempted to impose tougher lockdowns in imitation of China. North Korea’s economy is fragile due to pandemic border closures and decades of mismanagement, so the country has encouraged a ramp-up in agriculture, construction and other industrial activities. Kang said people in Hyesan still go to work.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights this week expressed concern about the consequences of North Korea’s quarantine measures, saying the isolation and travel restrictions will have dire consequences for people who are already struggling to meet their basic needs, including eating enough.
“Children, nursing mothers, the elderly, the homeless and those living in more isolated rural and border areas are particularly vulnerable,” the office said in a statement.
Defectors in South Korea say they are worried about their relatives in North Korea. They also suspect that COVID-19 had already spread in North Korea even before its official admission of the outbreak.
“My father and brother are still in North Korea and I’m very worried about them because they haven’t been vaccinated and there aren’t many drugs there,” Kang said. Na-ra, who fled to South Korea in late 2014. She said a brother told her in recent phone calls that their grandmother had died of pneumonia, which she said was caused by COVID-19, last September.
Defector Choi Song-juk said when his farmer sister in North Korea last called him in February, she said her daughter and many neighbors had been sick with coronavirus-like symptoms such as high fever, cough and sore throat. Choi said her sister pays brokers to arrange phone calls, but she hasn’t called recently, even though it’s around the time of year when she runs out of food and needs transfers. money through a network of brokers. Choi said the disconnection is likely related to antivirus restrictions on movement.
“I feel so sad. I have to reconnect with her because she has to be without food and pick wild vegetables,” said Choi, who left North Korea in 2015.
In recent years Kim Jong Un has built modern hospitals and improved medical systems, but critics say it is mainly for the country’s ruling elite and the socialist free medical service is in shambles. Recent defectors say there are plenty of locally produced drugs in the markets, but they have quality issues, so people prefer South Korean, Chinese and Russian drugs. But foreign drugs are usually expensive, so the poor, who make up the majority of the population in the north, cannot afford them.
“If you’re sick in North Korea, we often say you’re going to die,” Choi said.
Despite the outbreak, North Korea has not publicly responded to offers of medical aid from South Korea and the United States. World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday that the world body “is deeply concerned about the risk of spread” in North Korea and the lack of information about the outbreak.
Choi Jung Hun, a former North Korean doctor who resettled in South Korea, suspects North Korea is using its pandemic response as a tool to promote Kim’s image as a leader who cares. public and to solidify internal unity. He says the country’s underreported deaths could also be exploited as a propaganda tool.
“One day they will say they have contained COVID-19. Comparing its death toll with that of the United States and South Korea, they will say that they have done a very good job and that their anti-epidemic system is the best in the world,” Choi said today. now a researcher at a Korean affiliated university. institute in South Korea.
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