Home News North Korea grappling with covid – Junko Terao

North Korea grappling with covid – Junko Terao

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North Korea grappling with covid – Junko Terao

18 maggio 2022 11:35

The covid has also officially arrived in North Korea, a country that until now, at least according to the statements of Pyongyang, had mysteriously remained unscathed from a pandemic that has not spared even the last Pacific atoll. The country sealed its borders in early 2020, as the emergency erupted in China, and since then the few foreigners in the country – mostly diplomats and cooperators – have left, leaving us with no reliable sources of news on the country. situation.

On May 12, the authorities admitted for the first time the presence of the virus in the country, where the lockdown was imposed. Since the end of April, the official KCNA news agency said, 1.72 million people have developed a fever of unknown origin (there are not enough tampons, but it is presumable that it is covid-19), while the dead , officially, there are 62 (data updated to May 17). For the first time, Kim Jong-un appeared in public wearing a mask on May 13, arriving at the headquarters of the emergency response unit, only to take it off to smoke and speak to the group of officials gathered there.

Fatal parade
Is it likely that the covid has only just arrived? Why this announcement after having ensured for two years that the country had managed to remain unscathed? There are those who hypothesize that the infections so far have actually been contained and that the great military parade on April 25 for the 90th anniversary of the armed forces, with hundreds of thousands of people without masks, was fatal. The fear is that the pandemic could cause disasters in a country already weakened by two years of total closure, where the vast majority of the population is probably not vaccinated (Pyongyang has refused to send vaccines through the Covax mechanism) and with a health system unable to cope with such an emergency.

But what do we know about healthcare in North Korea, beyond what we can all imagine? We asked Carla Vitantonio, co-worker and author, among others, of Pyongyang Blues, report of the four years spent in North Korea. There Vitantonio, who now works in Cuba, followed the projects of an NGO that assisted the disabled, and for this he attended clinics and hospitals in the country. “The North Korean health system is divided into three levels,” explains Vitantonio. “The first is the dispensary, the outpatient clinic, whose presence is widespread and where generally a doctor, comparable to our general practitioner, does not assist more than a thousand patients. Then there are the second-tier clinics, district or city hospitals, which offer basic services for standard tests and where the primary care physician can send the patient for examination. Finally, there are the large provincial hospitals, structures where more specific analyzes are carried out or centers specialized in certain diseases, such as cancer hospitals, orthopedists and so on. In theory, the medical and paramedical staff are plentiful ”.

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What makes the health system even more vulnerable is the lack of tools. A lot of medical supplies are embargoed, including scalpels, because they are made of metal

“In the seventies, the North Korean one had to be, among the socialist countries, an advanced system”, continues Vitantonio. “Today, however, especially as regards the updating of techniques, but even more the availability of materials, North Korean healthcare cannot count on the avant-garde. As far as I know, the only systematic updates are made by the International Red Cross and concern emergency interventions, rehabilitation, post-traumatic operations. The only NGO that provided refresher activities was Doctors Without Borders, which however left the country at the beginning of the 2000s. The World Health Organization carries out updating activities but above all it has dealt with telemedicine, also with Italian funds.

Telemedicine in North Korea is important because the country is fully wired, so when there is electricity, the system works, especially in the diagnostic phase. From a provincial hospital you can get a diagnosis from a specialist facility and you can also do the telementoring, that is, a specialized doctor can train colleagues remotely or even show how to perform some practices. When the Italian government financed this system, there was no shortage of criticism from some NGOs, according to which telemedicine was a first world thing, while in North Korea there is hunger. Criticisms that I do not share because, given that telemedicine relies on already existing infrastructures, it was a matter of buying instruments such as screens and video cameras, with a potentially very high benefit.

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In addition to the lack of training and updating, the lack of tools makes the health system even more vulnerable. Much of the medical supplies are embargoed, including scalpels, because they are made of metal. The same colleagues of the International Red Cross admitted it: there is very, very little, and donations come with difficulty. When I was working there we imported orthopedic supplies and wheelchairs and it was already difficult, I guess now it’s even worse. Only one NGO in the world, the South Korean GreenTree foundation, of Christian inspiration, has managed to obtain from the United Nations a so-called waver humanitarian, that is, a dispensation to import products that are under embargo for humanitarian reasons, such as those made of metal. However, it does not provide medical supplies “.

Strategic emergency
So how could the government respond to the covid emergency? “Given that high-tech materials such as intubators, oxygen and personal protective equipment are required to deal with such a situation, I doubt the system can handle a large number of hospitalizations. The North Koreans know this, and that is why preventive quarantine was imposed when Sars came: anyone who arrived in the country was isolated in a hotel for two to three weeks. Even in 2014-2015, when there was fear that Ebola from Africa could arrive through China, anyone arriving from Beijing airport was placed in solitary confinement. So the preventive quarantine is a measure that in North Korea has already been applied precisely because the authorities admit the limits of the health system ”.

Is it likely that the virus has only arrived in the country now? “I don’t think so, maybe now it’s just got out of control. North Korea reacted with an even more total closure than in the past, so there had probably already been a few cases in the country and perhaps it had been isolated. It is likely that now there have been new outbreaks and for this they have raised the alarm. Even more likely is the hypothesis that the covid is a tool to leverage the sending of international aid. This is the period in which, after the traditional tensions of April (in which nuclear or missile tests are carried out every year that irritate the neighbors), Pyongyang makes predictions about the agricultural season and asks for humanitarian aid based on those. So I do not rule out that this year they have decided to link the request for aid to the covid emergency “.

Not to be underestimated is the fact that the new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, has just taken office in Seoul, who has appointed Kwon Young-se as minister of unification (in charge of relations with the North). From Kwon’s first statements, the new administration may not stray too far from the line of the previous one, in favor of dialogue. And the health crisis could affect the South Korean government’s first moves. Meanwhile, Yoon has already said he is ready to send vaccines and medical supplies to Pyongyang, but it is not clear whether the North Korean government will accept. Meanwhile, NKNews reports that in the last few days airplanes of Air Koryo, the national airline, have been shuttling back and forth with China to procure material related to covid-19.

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