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Elderly and sick die of COVID-19 complications in North Korean capital

North Korean authorities are mobilizing medical students in the capital of Pyongyang to help in hospitals suddenly overwhelmed with cases of COVID-19, sources in the country told RFA. Even so, deaths continue to rise due to lack of proper care and from counterfeit medicines as treatment options remain limited in the impoverished and isolated country.

After more than two years of denying any North Korean had contracted the coronavirus, the country finally announced its first cases and deaths last week, saying the Omicron variant had begun to spread among participants of a large-scale military parade in late April.

The long-term denial means doctors in the capital’s many hospitals are not up to speed on how to treat coronavirus, a Pyongyang resident told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“As a result, some elderly people infected with Omicron and people with chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes died because they did not receive proper treatment,” said the source.

“In addition, there are a number of people who have died due to side effects from medicines they purchased on their own without proper prescriptions,” the source said.

Pyongyang, with 2.9 million residents living relatively closely to one another, has been hit the hardest by the pandemic.

“They declared an emergency and mobilized doctors from each hospital in the city, then they even began mobilizing med students,” a Pyongyang resident told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“All residents in the city are subject to intensive medical screenings. They must check their temperature and report any abnormal symptoms twice a day,” the source said.

The demand for fever reducers and antibiotics has greatly increased. Many people travel from pharmacy to pharmacy in search of acetaminophen, ibuprofen and amoxicillin, said the source. Antibiotics have no effect on viral diseases like COVID-19.

“Authorities began to release wartime emergency medicines and have placed uniformed military doctors at pharmacies to prevent stealing. So now it is possible to buy necessary medicines,” said the source.

As home to most of the country’s privileged elites, Pyongyang has superior health care facilities than exist in the provinces.

In the city of Hamhung, in the eastern province of South Hamgyong, people had been crowding hospitals weeks before the declared emergency, complaining of coronavirus symptoms, a medical source there told RFA.

“There are provincial hospitals and city hospitals, as well as health institutions and facilities in provincial cities like Hamhung. However, in the case of county-level hospitals, there are only a few beds with poor medical equipment and facilities, and inexperienced doctors,” the second source said.

“I am worried about whether they can cope with it. It will be of great help if the authorities receive aid from the U.N. or medicines made in South Korea, which are effective and safe,” the source said.

About 2.2 million people have been hit by outbreaks of fever, 65 of whom have died, according to data based on reports from North Korean state media published by 38 North, a site that provides analysis on the country and is run by the U.S.-based think tank the Stimson Center. Around 1.5 million are reported to have made recoveries, while 754,800 are undergoing treatment.

The country has only a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases, which 38 North attributed to insufficient testing capabilities. Data published on the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center showed North Korea with only one confirmed COVID-19 case and six deaths as of Friday evening.

Accurate reporting

The numbers provided by state media are likely accurate, Ahn Kyungsoo, head of dprkhealth.org, a South Korea-based website that tracks North Korea’s healthcare situation.

But Ahn said that not all “fever” cases are necessarily coronavirus.

“In the middle of April is when seasons change in Korea. The North Korean authorities have released statistics since the end of April. There are inevitably a lot of people who develop fevers that time of the year due to the change of seasons…. And the main symptoms… are almost the same as those of cold patients who get ill in-between seasons,” he said.

“The cumulative number of people with fever that the North Korean authorities are talking about is not an individual person with a confirmed case of COVID-19. Their definition of ‘cured’ does not mean the full recovery from COVID-19, but only that fever symptoms have disappeared. These are the people who have been released from quarantine,” he said, adding that test kits in North Korea are scarce, and tallies can only be kept by observing symptoms like fever, body aches, coughing and sore throats.

Ahn said that even with a lot of help from the international community in the form of donated vaccines, North Koreans would still have trouble inoculating everyone because of a lack of cold storage and an inability to quickly transport vaccines to most parts of the country.

“Also, it takes time for the vaccine to take effect after one is vaccinated. From the perspective of North Korea, it will take quite a while even if they get the vaccine tomorrow. So, I think getting as many oral treatments as possible would be more advantageous than the vaccine.”

Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin J. Chung