North Korea’s COVID outbreak may be leading to a rise in stillbirths as pregnant women thought to be suffering from the disease are shuttled into hotels, warehouses and other improvised medical facilities that lack proper treatment, sources in the country told RFA.
After more than two years of denying any North Korean had contracted the coronavirus, the country finally announced its first cases and deaths this month, saying the Omicron variant had begun to spread among participants of a large-scale military parade in late April.
The country then declared a “maximum emergency” and began locking down entire cities and counties, requiring people to check their temperature and report symptoms twice a day. Suspected cases were isolated from the rest of the population.
The makeshift quarantine facilities, sometimes set up in empty tourist or industrial facilities, are ill-equipped to treat anyone infected with the virus, and pregnant patients added a new layer of complications.
“At the Anju Hotel, men and women with symptoms of COVID-19 are separated and isolated in their rooms,” a resident of the city of Anju in South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service.
About 200 residents of Anju are isolated in the hotel, and their treatment consists of only two pain reliever tablets each day, said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“There are many pregnant women among those with severe symptoms who are quarantined in the hotels,” the source said. “Those who are about to give birth are at risk. There have been cases of stillborn babies, born way before their due date because the women are unable to receive proper treatment.
“The quarantine authorities only dealt with the bodies of the stillborn babies and are not giving further treatment or special care for the mothers who complain of high fever or symptoms of postpartum. Families are outraged that the quarantine officials, who say they can only let the grieving mothers go out if they recover from their COVID-19 symptoms,” she said.
The source said she knew specifically about two women who had stillbirths, including one who had been helped by a doctor to deliver the baby.
In Chungsan county, in another part of the province, suspected COVID-19 cases are isolated in an empty warehouse on a cooperative farm, a resident there told RFA on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“The meals are provided by the local government. Two fever pills are provided by the Central Committee to each person, but the pills are not really working for the patients with high fevers,” he said.
“Right now, there are about 300 patients that are quarantined at the warehouse and propaganda office at the farm. There are about 20 pregnant women among the group, who, after 10 days of isolation in a harsh environment, are suffering from high fevers and pregnancy poisoning, swelling, and pain all over their bodies, so they are appealing for appropriate treatment,” he said.
But the quarantine officials are treating the pregnant women the same as everyone else at the makeshift facility.
“They give the pregnant women the same corn-rice and spinach soup as they give to the other patients, and no treatment is given. The pregnant women are having stillbirths because they cannot eat properly when they are sick, and the fetuses die in their stomachs,” he said.
“As the news of stillbirths spread among the families of the pregnant women quarantined for COVID-19, local residents are complaining that the authorities and their COVID-19 quarantine measures are killing pregnant women and their unborn babies,” the second source said.
About 2.8 million people have been hit by outbreaks of fever, 68 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 2.3 million are reported to have made recoveries, while 479,400 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 Monday evening.
Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.