The world’s hidden pandemic


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.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presiding over an emergency meeting on Covid-19 prevention measures.

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 allegedly ordered the execution of two people for Covid-19 related crimes, including a customs official who allegedly did not follow virus prevention rules while importing goods from China. In June 2021, Kim also fired several senior officials who failed to implement his draconian Covid-19 prevention plans.

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.”

Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that the country’s Covid-19 policies had further exacerbated the crisis and put North Koreans at an increased risk of dying. “North Koreans have had almost no access to the Covid-19 vaccine, and many are chronically malnourished, leaving them with compromised immune systems. Medicines of any kind are scarce in the country, and the healthcare infrastructure is extremely fragile, lacking medical supplies such as oxygen and other Covid-19 therapeutics,” the rights organization said in a statement.

“North Koreans are facing a uniquely acute catastrophe, and the world should not turn away,” it added.

North Korea’s lack of transparency and unwillingness to share information poses a steep challenge. The country has never formally acknowledged how many died during a devastating famine in the 1990s that experts suggest killed as many as 2 million people. Those who fled the country at the time shared horrific stories of death and survival, and a country in chaos. The current lockdown is expected to hinder the agricultural harvest, which already took a hit due to drought.

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?

A: The Biden administration is opening an official government website for a third round of orders while reiterating its calls for Congress to act on extra Covid response funding.

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.

Send your questions here. Are you a health care worker fighting Covid-19? Message us on WhatsApp about the challenges you’re facing: +1 347-322-0415.

READS OF THE WEEK

Shanghai declares zero-Covid milestone but residents doubt reopening

Shanghai officials claimed Tuesday they had achieved “zero-Covid at the community level,” meaning infections are no longer being found outside centralized quarantine facilities or neighborhoods under the strictest lockdowns, Nectar Gan and CNN’s Beijing Bureau write.
This comes after an apparent turning point in their heavy-handed and costly campaign to tame an Omicron outbreak — but many residents remain skeptical about whether the city will reopen. On Monday, Jessie Yeung reported China had pulled out of hosting the 2023 Asian Football Confederation Asia Cup, which could suggest the country’s zero-Covid policy will remain for some time to come.

All 16 districts of the Chinese financial hub had now achieved that distinction, Zhao Dandan, deputy head of the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission, said at a news conference Tuesday. But 860,000 people remain under the strictest lockdown level, meaning they cannot leave their homes.

Covid wastewater surveillance is promising tool, but critical challenges remain

Covid-19 surveillance is at a crossroads in the United States. With at-home tests now outnumbering those done in laboratories, official case counts are more incomplete than ever, just as the nation — and world — faces increasingly transmissible coronavirus variants.

Wastewater surveillance is poised to fill in the gaps and help avoid the threats that an invisible wave of the virus could bring. This surveillance can help identify trends in transmission a week or two earlier than clinical testing, giving public health leaders the chance to focus messaging and resources. It can be used as a tool to sequence the virus and find new variants sooner, too.

But eagerness to use this tool is stifled by uncertainty about exactly how to do so, along with a lack of resources and support to learn, Deidre McPhillips writes.

US struggles to spend Covid cash on those hit hardest by virus

In March 2021, the Biden administration announced it was investing $2.25 billion to address Covid health disparities, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarding grants to every state health department and 58 large city and county health agencies to help underserved communities hit hardest by the virus.

Now, a year later — after Covid has killed 1 million people in the US since the pandemic started — little of the money has been used, according to Kaiser Health News requests for information from around a dozen state and county agencies.

Mounting unspent Covid relief dollars is one of the key reasons Republicans in Congress cite as a reason to oppose Democrats’ efforts to appropriate billions more federal dollars for managing the pandemic.

TOP TIP

If staycations are in the cards this summer, the CDC has updated its guidance for traveling within the US.

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.

Previous testing recommendations for domestic travel applied only to those who were not up to date with their Covid-19 vaccinations. Read more here.

Listen to our podcast

Strengthen your immune system. Feel less pain. Decrease depression.

Setting aside a few moments in a day to reflect on what we’re grateful for, even simple things, can have a profound impact on our physical and mental health.

This week on Chasing Life, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, explores what happens to our brains and bodies when we give thanks. Plus, learn how to implement a gratitude practice in your daily life. Listen here.

Quoted from Various Sources

Published for: The Bloggers Briefing