North Korea, one of the most secretive and totalitarian countries in the world, sealed its borders when the pandemic first started to spread across the globe in January 2020 — further isolating the nation. It also restricted internal movement, affecting access to medicine, healthcare and food. And as new variants emerged, it stepped up those efforts, cutting off nearly all trade with China — the country’s biggest economic partner.
“In the absence of any vaccination rollout, the pandemic’s spread may have a devastating impact on the human rights situation in the country,” Throssell told a briefing in Geneva on Tuesday. “It lacks testing capacity, essential medicines, and equipment.”
After two years without acknowledging that North Korea had any Covid-19 cases, last week officials confirmed an outbreak. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, appeared in public with a face mask for the first time on May 12 to order a nationwide lockdown and declare a “maximum emergency.”
Since the surge was first reported, more than 1.7 million people have been sickened with what Pyongyang is referring to as “fever,” and 62 people have died, according to state media outlet KCNA. On Tuesday, the country said more than 230,000 new cases and six more deaths. But the reports did not indicate how many of the infections or deaths were conclusively linked to Covid-19 through testing.
Presiding over a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party on Tuesday, Kim slammed the state’s response to the outbreak as “immature,” accusing government officials of failures and “slackness” in getting a handle on what he said could amount to one of the greatest crises in the country’s history, according to KCNA. Their inaction had resulted in further increasing “complexity and hardships,” he added, calling for redoubled efforts to stabilize people’s lives.
But while rights experts have welcomed North Korea’s acknowledgement of the unfolding crisis, they argue that Kim’s comments belie the true impact of the government’s pandemic response on North Korean people. The country’s leader, like authoritarian rulers elsewhere, has used the pandemic as cover to further repress civil and political rights in the country, with Throssel pointing to a policy authorizing the use of lethal force against people attempting to enter or leave.
Kim’s latest restrictions will have even more distressing consequences for citizens, especially for those already struggling to meet basic needs. Throssel said among those particularly vulnerable are children, the elderly and the homeless, and that people in “detention are also particularly exposed to the risk of infection due to the high concentrations of people in confined spaces and limited access to hygiene and healthcare.”
“North Koreans are facing a uniquely acute catastrophe, and the world should not turn away,” it added.
The UN, HRW and others have urged North Korea to respond to calls from the international community to open channels for humanitarian support, including medicines and vaccines.
On Monday, South Korea offered help, with President Yoon Suk Yeol saying: “If the North Korean authorities accept, we will not spare any necessary support, such as medicine, including Covid-19 vaccines, medical equipment and health care personnel.” Last week, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said it was ready to provide “full support” in North Korea’s fight against the virus — while the country is dealing with its own Covid crisis.
YOU ASKED. WE ANSWERED.
Q: Can I get free at-home Covid tests?
US households can now order “an additional eight free at-home tests at COVIDTests.gov, bringing the total number of free tests available to each household since the start of the program to 16,” the White House said on Tuesday.
The tests were first made available on Monday.
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All domestic travelers — including those who have had all their vaccinations and boosters — are being urged to “consider getting tested as close to the time of departure as possible (no more than three days) before your trip,” according to its Covid-19 website updates this month.
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