SEOUL: North Korea says its COVID-19 outbreak has been brought under control, with state media reporting falling caseloads for a seventh straight day Friday as healthcare workers “intensify” testing and treatment.
But experts question the official numbers given the isolated country has one of the world’s worst healthcare systems and likely no COVID-19 drugs or mass testing ability.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said “progress” has been made in diagnosing and treating patients thanks to “the devoted efforts” of medical workers.
North Korea announced its first coronavirus cases on May 12 and activated a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system”, with leader Kim Jong Un putting himself front and centre of the government’s response.
Kim blamed lazy officials for a sluggish reaction to the outbreak and deployed the army to staff Pyongyang’s pharmacies.
This weekend state media said the epidemic has been brought under control, and KCNA reiterated that message Tuesday.
“Nationwide morbidity and mortality rates have drastically decreased,” the news agency said.
On Friday it reported just over 100,000 new cases of “fever”, down from a high of 390,000 a day reported earlier this month.
KCNA also reported one more death Friday — taking the total to 69 — and claimed the fatality rate remains at 0.002%. It says more than three million people have fallen sick.
North Korea has not vaccinated any of its roughly 25 million people, having rejected jabs offered by the World Health Organisation.
Jong Jun Ho, an army medic deployed in Pyongyang, told AFP the number of patients his team were treating every day has dramatically decreased.
“At first, there were many feverish people so mainly antipyretics were supplied to the patients,” he said, referring to medicines that reduce fever.
From a high of up to 400 patients a day, his team are now only seeing around 30 people daily, he added.
Now that many people have “recovered”, he said mainly “medicines for bronchitis” were being given to patients who are suffering the after-effects of infection.
KCNA said hospitals were “stepping up the development and production of test reagents and treatment medicines”.
“Tens of millions of medicines of over 90 kinds are supplied to different parts of the country on May 24 alone,” the news agency said.
Pyongyang has not responded to an offer of help from Seoul, according to South Korea’s unification ministry.
During a visit to Seoul last week, US President Joe Biden said Washington had also offered COVID-19 vaccines to Pyongyang but “got no response”.
Despite the outbreak, new satellite imagery has indicated North Korea has resumed construction at a long-dormant nuclear reactor.
The United States and South Korea have both warned that Kim is poised to conduct another nuclear test any day, which would be the country’s seventh.