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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Tea and notices: North Korea fights COVID with few tools

SEOUL, South Korea ( Associated Press) — On a recent late-night visit to a pharmacy, Kim Jong Un, wearing a double mask, lamented the slow delivery of drugs. On the other hand, the North Korean leader’s underlings have quarantined hundreds of thousands of possible COVID-19 patients and urged people with mild symptoms to drink willow or honeysuckle tea.

Despite North Korean propaganda boasting of the government’s campaign against the virus, fear is palpable among the public, according to defectors in South Korea with contacts in the north, and some experts fear the outbreak will get much worse in a country where good part of an impoverished and unvaccinated population finds itself without sufficient hospital care and in trouble to pay for even the simplest medicines.

“North Koreans know that many people have died around the world from COVID-19, so they are afraid that some of them may die as well,” said Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector, citing her phone conversations with contacts in North Korea. the northern city of Hyesan. People who can afford it buy traditional medicines to allay her fears.

Since admitting what it described as its first COVID-19 outbreak a week ago, North Korea has struggled to manage a looming health crisis that has heightened public anxiety over a virus it has so far claimed to have kept at bay. .

The management of the pandemic seemed focused mainly on isolating potential patients. It is possible that this is all that the country can do, which does not have vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units or other medical resources that allowed millions of patients in other countries to survive.

North Korean health authorities said Thursday that a rapidly spreading fever has killed 63 people and sickened some two million since the end of April, with some 740,000 people still in quarantine. Pyongyang said this month that its total number of COVID-19 cases remained at 168, despite rising fever cases. Many international experts doubt these figures and believe that the true extent of the outbreak has not been reported to prevent discontent among the population that could erode Kim’s leadership.

According to state media, a million public workers have been mobilized to identify potential patients. Kim Jong Un also ordered military doctors to assist in delivering medicine to pharmacies, just before visiting pharmacies in Pyongyang at dawn on Sunday.

North Korea also uses state media – newspapers, television and radio – to give advice on how to combat the virus to its citizens, most of whom have no access to the internet or news from foreign media.

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“It is crucial that we find every person with symptoms of a fever so that they can be isolated and treated, to fundamentally block spaces where the infectious disease can spread,” Ryu Yong Chol, an official at state television, said on Wednesday. the anti-virus agency in Pyongyang.

The state television broadcasts informative notices in which cartoon characters recommend that people go to the doctor if they have respiratory problems, spit up blood or faint. They also explain medications that patients can take, including home remedies such as tea with honey. The country’s leading newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, recommended that people with mild symptoms boil 4 to 5 grams of willow or honeysuckle leaves in water and drink the brew three times a day.

“These recommendations make no sense at all. It’s like the government asking people to only contact the doctor if they have respiratory problems, which means right before they die,” said former North Korean agriculture official Cho Chung Hui, who fled to South Korea in 2011. “It hurts my heart when I think of my brother and sister in North Korea and their suffering.”

Kang, who runs a company that analyzes the North Korean economy, said contacts in Hyesan have told him that North Korean residents have been asked to thoroughly read Rodong Sinmun’s reports on how the country is working to curb the outbreak.

Since May 12, travel between regions of the country has been prohibited, but the government has not tried to impose stricter quarantines as in China. The North Korean economy is fragile due to border closures and decades of mismanagement, so the country has encouraged agriculture, construction and other industrial activities to accelerate. Kang said that people in Hyesan continue to go to work.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern this week about the consequences of North Korea’s quarantine measures, noting that isolation and travel restrictions will have harsh consequences for people who were already struggling to meet their basic needs. , how to get enough food.

“Children, nursing mothers, the elderly, the homeless, and those living in more isolated rural and border areas are especially vulnerable,” the office said in a statement.

Defectors in South Korea say they fear for their loved ones in North Korea. They also suspect that COVID-19 had already spread to North Korea even before official recognition.

“My father and brother are still in North Korea and I am very worried about them because they are not vaccinated and there are no medicines there,” said Kang Na-ra, who fled to South Korea in late 2014. Her brother told her during a recent call that her grandmother had died last September from pneumonia, which she believes was due to COVID-19.

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Defector Choi Song-juk said his sister is a farmer in North Korea. The last time they spoke on the phone, in February, he said that she, her daughter and many neighbors had been sick with coronavirus-like symptoms, including a high fever, cough and sore throat. Choi said his sister pays brokers to arrange the calls, but she hasn’t called lately, even though it’s the time of year when she often lacks food and needs money transfers through a network of brokers. Choi said the disconnection is likely due to movement restrictions associated with the virus.

“I am very sad. I must contact her again because she must be without food and collecting wild plants,” said Choi, who left North Korea in 2015.

In recent years, Kim Jong Un has built modern hospitals and upgraded medical systems, but critics say it is mostly for the country’s ruling elite and socialist free medical care is in shambles. Recent defectors say that there are many domestically produced drugs on the markets, but they have quality problems and people prefer South Korean, Chinese and Russian medicines. But foreign medicines are often expensive, so the poor, who are the majority of the country’s population, cannot afford them.

“If you are sick in North Korea, we often say that you will die,” Choi said.

Despite the outbreak, North Korea has not publicly responded to South Korean and US offers of medical aid. World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday that the international body “is very concerned about the risk of further expansion” in North Korea and the lack of information about the outbreak.

Choi Jung Hun, a former North Korean doctor who moved to South Korea, suspects that North Korea is taking advantage of its handling of the pandemic to reinforce Kim’s image as a leader concerned about the population and consolidate internal unity. The low official death toll could also be used as a propaganda tool, he said.

“One day they will say they have contained COVID-19. Comparing their 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,” said Choi, who is now a researcher at an institute affiliated with the University of Korea in South Korea.

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