SEOUL (AFP) – North Korea confirmed its first COVID-19 death yesterday, saying fever was spreading “explosively” nationwide and tens of thousands of people were being isolated after falling sick.
The insular country only reported its first COVID cases on Thursday, saying it was moving into “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system” after sick patients in the capital Pyongyang tested positive for the Omicron variant.
North Korea has been under a rigid coronavirus blockade since the start of the pandemic in 2020, but with massive Omicron outbreaks in all neighbouring countries, experts said it was only a matter of time before COVID snuck in.
“A fever whose cause couldn’t be identified explosively spread nationwide from late April,” the official KCNA said.
“Six persons died (one of them tested positive for the BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron)” it added. With its 25 million people unvaccinated against COVID, North Korea’s crumbling health infrastructure would struggle to deal with a major outbreak, experts said.
“On May 12 alone, some 18,000 persons with fever occurred nationwide and as of now up to 187,800 people are being isolated and treated,” KCNA said.
Leader Kim Jong Un – seen wearing a mask on state TV for the first time – oversaw an emergency meeting of the Politburo on Thursday and ordered nationwide lockdowns in a bid to halt the spread of the virus.
On Friday, KCNA said Kim visited the state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters and “learned about the nationwide spread of Covid-19”.
“It is the most important challenge and supreme tasks facing our Party to reverse the immediate public health crisis situation at an early date,” KCNA added.
It is likely that the massive nationwide outbreak is linked to a huge military parade held in Pyongyang on April 25, said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute.
North Korea was likely to see “major chaos” due to the rapid spread of Omicron, he said, given that the country is currently reporting nearly 20,000 cases in a single day.