North Korea has brought in the military to stabilise its distribution of coronavirus medicine as the country battles its “first” outbreak.
Last week, state media acknowledged an “explosive outbreak” with experts warning it could devastate the country which has limited medical supplies and no vaccine programme.
Drugs procured by the state were not reaching people quickly or accurately, leader Kim Jong Un told an emergency politburo meeting on Sunday, before visiting pharmacies near the capital’s Taedong River, state news agency KCNA said.
Kim ordered the immediate deployment of the “powerful forces” of the army’s medical corps to “stabilise the supply of medicines in Pyongyang City”.
Although authorities had ordered the distribution of national reserves of medicine, pharmacies were not well-equipped to perform their functions smoothly, Kim added.
Kim criticised the “irresponsible” work attitude, organisation, and execution of the cabinet and public health sector, with a lack of adequate drug storage, salespeople unequipped with proper sanitary clothing, and hygiene standards falling short.
North Korea has so far shunned vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution scheme, possibly because those have international monitoring requirements.
The country, already isolated from the rest of the world, closed its borders to nearly all trade and visitors for two years but had not acknowledged any cases within the country.
But some experts say the announcement of the outbreak may signal a willingness to receive outside aid.
Seoul’s unification ministry, responsible for cross-border relations, said that it had proposed working-level talks to provide medical supplies, including vaccines, masks, and test kits, as well as technical cooperation, but the North had not received its message.
North Korea ‘wholly unvaccinated’
Aidan Foster-Carter, a North Korea expert from Leeds University, said the people of North Korea may be “wholly unvaccinated”.
He continued: “North Korea is one of just two countries in the world – the other bring Eritrea, often called the North Korea of Africa – which hasn’t vaccinated anybody, officially, as far as we know.
“People have been offering – China’s been offering, the WHO, South Korea.”
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said he would spare no effort to help the North fight its outbreak, saying it was ready to provide COVID-19 vaccines and other medical support.
Yoon said he would send humanitarian aid without political considerations, while expressing concerns over the North’s
recent missile launches and signs of preparations for what would be its first nuclear test since 2017.
“If North Korea responds, I would not save any necessary support for medicines including COVID vaccines, medical
equipment and health personnel,” he said in a speech to parliament.
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North Korea’s tally of the fever-stricken stood at 1,213,550, with 50 deaths by Sunday, after KCNA reported 392,920
more cases of fever, and eight more deaths. It did not say how many suspected infections had tested positive for COVID-19.
The North has blamed a large number of the deaths on people who were “careless in taking drugs” because of a lack of knowledge about the Omicron variant of coronavirus and its correct treatment.