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Kim slams North Korea's COVID response, orders army to 'stabilize' drugs supply

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) inspecting a pharmacy in Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 15, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has blasted the country’s crisis management in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, ordering the deployment of the army to help distribute medicine, state media said on Monday.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim “strongly criticized” healthcare officials for what he called a botched response to epidemic prevention and failure to keep pharmacies open round the clock.

He ordered the army to focus “on immediately stabilizing the supply of medicines in Pyongyang”, where the Omicron variant of coronavirus was detected last week, bringing life to a grinding halt.

Pyongyang recorded 15 new deaths on Sunday, bringing the total number of fatalities to 50.

According to reports, more than a million people have so far been detected with “fever” symptoms, despite the nationwide lockdown, giving rise to fears that the sanctions-battered country’s crumbling healthcare system will be unable to cope with the outbreak.

The isolated nation made a startling admission of its first COVID outbreak earlier this week, after claiming no infections or deaths since the outbreak of the pandemic more than two years ago.

The first suspected deaths from the virus were announced on Friday, with the country swiftly moving into lockdown.

The country’s 26 million people have not been vaccinated against the virus after Pyongyang rejected millions of doses offered under the WHO-led COVAX program.

KCNA cited Kim as saying that the failure to distribute medicine properly was “because officials of the cabinet and public health sector in charge of the supply have not rolled up their sleeves, not properly recognizing the present crisis.”

“Strongly criticizing the cabinet and public health sector for their irresponsible work attitude,” the North Korean leader flagged “several negative phenomena in the nationwide handling and sale of medicines,” the state media said.

After the outbreak, the country’s ruling Workers’ Party convened an emergency meeting on the situation, according to KCNA, which was chaired by Kim.

“The spread of the malignant epidemic is a great turmoil to fall on our country since the founding,” the state news agency quoted the North Korean leader as saying in the meeting.

Epidemic control officials told the meeting that “in most cases, human casualties were caused by negligence including drug overdose due to lack of knowledge of treatment methods.”

Kim’s public criticism shows that the country is in a dire situation, Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, was quoted as saying by AFP.

“He is pointing out the overall inadequacy of the quarantine system,” he said.

According to experts, North Korean hospitals are poorly-equipped without any COVID-19 treatment drugs or mass testing ability.

The country had reported no cases since the start of the pandemic two years ago, which raised the possibility of a lack of rigorous testing or treatment campaigns in the country.

It is one of only two countries in the world that have yet to begin a COVID vaccination campaign, according to the World Health Organization.

South Korea, China, and the WHO have all made fresh offers of assistance to help deal with the outbreak, but Pyongyang hasn’t yet responded to the offers.

KCNA said the country was taking “swift state emergency measures” to control the epidemic, but there was no sign that Pyongyang was going to accept international offers of vaccines.

“All provinces, cities, and counties of the country have been totally locked down and working units, production units and residential units closed from each other since the morning of 12 May and strict and intensive examination of all the people is being conducted,” KCNA reported on Sunday.

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