Two years into the pandemic, North Korea confirms its first COVID-19 case

Is this an international call for help?
Ameya Paleja

North Korea has imposed a nationwide lockdown after it publicly confirmed its first COVID-19 outbreak in over two years of the global pandemic, NPR reported. The size of the outbreak has not been revealed.

This also happens to be the country's first acknowledgment of a COVID-19 infection after placing strict border controls soon after the disease spread to countries in early 2020. This included the closure of railroad traffic with its closest ally, China, and halted trade during this period. 

What led to the national lockdown? 

According to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), health authorities collected samples from fever-ridden patients in the capital city of Pyongyang and found them to be identical to the Omicron variant.

While the number of patients tested has not been revealed, Kim Jong Un, the country's supreme leader, chaired a meeting to discuss a response to the outbreak. Calling it an "unexpected crisis", he called on cities and counties to "thoroughly lockdown" to curb the spread of the virus, CGTN reported

In what seems to be inspired by its friendly neighbor's 'zero-COVID' policy, North Korea has adopted a "maximum emergency epidemic prevention system" that aims to contain the spread of COVID-19 and "stamp out the source of transmission" in the shortest time possible. 

How does North Korean healthcare fare? 

The Omicron variant is known to transmit more easily, and its hospitalization and fatality rates are much higher in the unvaccinated groups. As a country, North Korea shunned vaccines offered by the United Nation's COVAX program since they required international monitoring, NPR reported. This puts the country at serious risk.

The U.N.-led sanctions for North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons mean that the country cannot seek medical equipment to handle a major outbreak. The public acknowledgment of an outbreak might be a call for help for COVID-19 medicines, experts told NPR. 

It could also be that announcement of the lockdown is to keep its people on a high alert against the virus, which is currently on a rampage in China, especially in areas where North Korea shares its borders. 
Another interpretation could be that the outbreak in North Korea is severe; and its people are looking to the leadership to do something about it, rather than test weapons to be used against adversaries, NPR said in its report. 

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