- South Korean news outlets say the Wuhan coronavirus has spread to North Korea.
- Though the country has further isolated itself from the rest of the world, its lack of medical supplies and “crumbling” healthcare system isn’t equipped to handle an outbreak, experts say.
- The news of possible coronavirus cases in North Korea come shortly before Kim Jong Un canceled an annual parade that celebrates the founding of the military’s armed forces without explanation.
- “They cannot produce the medicine they need because of the sanctions,” a former World Health Organization official told Insider. “Nothing new has come to the country to updates their medicine or technology.”
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
As the rapidly spreading Wuhan coronavirus infects people across the world, one country has remained silent about the progress of the virus within its borders: North Korea.
Although North Korean leaders have yet to report any coronavirus cases, several South Korean outlets with sources inside the country report that the pandemic has hit the isolated country. Experts are worried that the poor, isolated country could be devastated by the illness.
“There’s not enough medicine for the country. I’m really concerned about them facing an outbreak,” Nagi Shafik, a former project manager and consultant at the WHO and UNICEF offices in Pyongyang told Insider. “It will be dangerous for them – it could go everywhere.”
North Korea has isolated itself even more amid the outbreak
North Korea was one of the first countries to block foreign tourists from entering its borders in response to the coronavirus outbreak. It has since suck deeper into isolation cutting trade with China, the source of the outbreak, and curbed diplomatic travel into the country in the hopes of halting the pandemic from spreading within its borders, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Kim Jong Un’s cancellation of an annual parade – often a huge military spectacle reported on by state-run media – without explanation has only flared suspicions that there are coronavirus infections in the country. However, experts say, it may be a public health measure to prevent infection.
“North Korea is on lockdown. The country is on lockdown. And that’s saying something,” Michael Madden, a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center and expert on the country, told Insider.
Madden said that bolstering public health has been a priority for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. However, it may not be enough to combat the coronavirus.
At least two South Korean media outlets, who claim to have sources inside their sister country, have reported on possible coronavirus cases in the country.
Chosun Ilbo, one of South Korea’s largest newspapers, reported that there were at least two suspected cases of the illness in Sinuiju, DPRK. Meanwhile, Daily North Korea reported that there as many as five have died due to the novel virus in the same city. Additionally, coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Japan and South Korea.
Many suspect the coronavirus could have crossed the 880-mile border between China and North Korea, a “porous” border where smugglers often help North Korean defectors escape and exchange goods, according to Chosun Ilbo. On January 30, a Chinese region near the North Korean border reported its first coronavirus case, according to UPI.
However, North Korean leaders have yet to report any cases of the coronavirus. A spokesperson from the World Health Organization told Insider that there are no reports of a coronavirus case in the country yet.
The country’s isolation measures may not be enough
If the coronavirus were to spread within the borders of North Korea, experts say, its healthcare system would likely not be equipped to fight it.
Although the North Korean government has asserted that “everyone in the DPRK receives medical service of all categories equally, practically and free of charge,” a 2010 Amnesty International report called the country’s health care system “crumbling.” The organization found chronic shortages of medicines and medical supplies and decreased access to medical facilities in rural areas.
Shafik, who worked on behalf of WHO in Pyongyang until 2009, said that the country has many trained nurses and doctors, some of whom are sent to other countries to be trained. According to Shafik, while the country has the healthcare infrastructure to handle a health crisis, it likely lacks the medical supplies both to prevent, diagnose, and treat the coronavirus.
He says the country likely doesn’t have enough masks and protective clothing to protect its citizens and wouldn’t have the laboratory equipment, including chemicals and reagents to test for the virus.
While Shafik says North Korea should focus on getting protective gear first, he said the country will also need antibiotics to treat the fatal symptoms of the virus.
“People died from the secondary complication of pneumonia. You have to have antibiotics. I doubt that they have antibiotics to treat such cases,” Shafik added. Although North Korea has the factories to produce the necessary medicine and vaccines to treat the country, Shafik says international sanctions have stifled medical progress in the country.
“They cannot produce the medicine they need because of the sanctions. Nothing new has come to the country to updates their medicine or technology,” Shafik told Insider. “What even is the best doctor without equipment?”
However, Shafik noted that he believed North Korean leaders would call for help if the situation became dire, as they did with the SARS outbreak.
Madden echoed that issues with combatting the coronavirus would come down to resources in the country. Madden noted that the treatment would likely be concentrated on people of better standing in the country.
“There’s a massive disparity of its medical treatments in hospitals. They have a caste system. People of a higher caste can receive better medical treatment than people in the lower caste,” Madden told Insider.
However, Madden believes North Korea is doing what it can to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, Beyond the measures the country has taken to keep foreigners outside its borders, it has also restricted the movement of goods like rice and sounded alarms about the infection.
“North Korea is taking steps to mitigate coronavirus. They’re broadcasting internationally and internally that the government and regime is taking all necessary precautions,” Madden told Insider.
Additionally, the power the country does have at its disposal is the ability to move and quarantine people. China has carried out similar measures, quarantining entire cities and millions of people to prevent the spread of the virus.
But beyond the dangers the virus could pose to the country’s population, an outbreak could deal a bigger blow to the Kim regime’s delicate authority over the country and its people.
“This is something they can’t control, they can control information, population movement, but things like epidemics – that’s the kind of stuff that the regime can control – nobody can control it,” Madden said. “It could create the image that the regime is not the great powerful Oz. it will cause some fissures that Kim Jong-un would have to deal with personally.”
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