North Korea deploys army to distribute medicine as more than a million Covid cases feared

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ordered the military to regulate and stabilise the distribution of medicines in the capital Pyongyang, as the nation appeared to admit to having more than a million Covid-19 cases.

The isolated nation, which shut its borders at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, acknowledged its first Covid case on 12 May.

More than 1.2 million North Koreans had been ill with “fever” – a euphemism used by Pyongyang for Covid – as of Sunday, reported the state-controlled newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Monday.

Of all those infected since late April, over 648,630 have recovered and at least 564,860 are still under medical treatment, it said.

The government claims the death toll stands at 50.

In an emergency Politburo meeting chaired on Sunday, Mr Kim lambasted the “irresponsible” approach of the cabinet and health officials, and ordered the “powerful forces” of the army’s medical corps to be deployed to “immediately stabilise the supply of medicines” in the capital.

The North Korean leader also visited pharmacies near the Taedong River in Pyongyang to check on the supply and sale of drugs.

Following his visit, Mr Kim said the city’s pharmacies were not well enough equipped to perform their function smoothly, and were suffering from a shortage of drugs.

Military medical corps attend the launch of a campaign to improve the supply of medicines in Pyongyang (via REUTERS)
Military medical corps attend the launch of a campaign to improve the supply of medicines in Pyongyang (via REUTERS)

The state had earlier blamed the “carelessness” of people in taking medicines, which it said was caused by “the lack of knowledge and understanding of stealth Omicron variant virus infection disease and its correct treatment method”.

North Korea’s health ministry has started to compile “treatment guidelines, methods and tactics” to control the virus, reported state media.

Mr Kim imposed a nationwide lockdown last Thursday to fight the “explosive” spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Wearing a mask in public for the first time on Saturday, he said the “spread of the coronavirus is very serious in the world, and means great upheaval for our country”.

Mr Kim imposed a nationwide lockdown last Thursday to fight the ‘explosive’ spread of the virus (Associated Press)
Mr Kim imposed a nationwide lockdown last Thursday to fight the ‘explosive’ spread of the virus (Associated Press)

He asked his administration to study the quarantine policies of other countries, especially China, which follows some of the world’s strictest Covid guidelines under its “zero tolerance” policy.

Officials have been asked to “actively follow” the accounts of Chinese health officials, suggesting that Pyongyang could duplicate Beijing’s strategy to curb the spread of the virus.

North Korea, which has one of the worst healthcare systems in the world, has previously rejected vaccines offered by the Covax distribution programme. It also lacks access to the number of kits required for conducting large-scale testing.

South Korea, meanwhile, has offered to provide medicines, vaccines and test kits, as well as technical cooperation.

South Korea’s unification ministry said on Monday that the country had offered to hold working-level talks with its northern neighbour on the Covid pandemic.

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