UN alarmed as COVID spreads in North Korea, ready to help
FILE - An employee of Pyongyang Dental Hygiene Products Factory disinfects the floor of a dining room as the state increased measures to stop the spread of illness in Pyongyang, North Korea on May 16, 2022. North Korea on Wednesday, May 18, reported 232,880 new cases of fever and another six deaths as leader Kim Jong Un accused officials of “immaturity” and “slackness” in handling the escalating COVID-19 outbreak ravaging across the unvaccinated nation. (AP Photo/Cha Song Ho, File)

GENEVA, Switzerland (AFP)— The UN voiced alarm Tuesday at the swelling COVID outbreak in North Korea, warning that its unvaccinated population was particularly vulnerable, and reiterated its offer to provide assistance and jabs.

The UN's World Health Organization cautioned that the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID could easily rip through the impoverished country with disastrous effect.

And the UN rights office warned that the measures authorities are putting in place risked violating rights and pushing vulnerable people into an even more precarious situation.

A total of 56 deaths and nearly 1.5 million cases of "fever" have been reported in North Korea since the country announced its first COVID case a week ago, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

"WHO is deeply concerned at the risk of further spread of COVID-19 in the country particularly because the population is unvaccinated and many have underlying conditions putting them at risk of severe disease and death," agency chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.

"WHO has requested that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea share data and information," he said, adding that the organisation had offered to provide technical support and supplies, tests, medicines and vaccines to help Pyongyang stem the spread.

- Risk of new variants -

Leader Kim Jong Un has ordered nationwide lockdowns to try to slow the spread of the disease, and deployed the military after what he has called a botched response to the outbreak.

So far, it does not appear that the country has accepted the assistance offered by the United Nations.

WHO acknowledged though that there was no way force North Korea, or Eritrea -- the only other country in the world that has not started vaccinating its population against COVID -- to accept help.

But if COVID is allowed to spread unabated, there is a greater chance new and potentially more dangerous variants could emerge, putting the whole world at risk.

"Where you have unchecked transmission, there is always a higher risk of new variants emerging," WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told reporters.

"So certainly it is worrying if countries... are not using the tools that are now available."

And while fears abound that more dangerous COVID variants could emerge, Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on COVID-19, stressed that the dominant Omicron variant was dangerous.

"The notion that Omicron is mild is false... That narrative is really deadly, because people think that they're not at risk," she said.

For the unvaccinated, and especially the elderly or people with underlying conditions, Omicron can cause "severe disease and death," she said.

"This is why vaccines are so important."

- 'Dire consequences' -

Earlier Tuesday, the UN also cautioned that the measures introduced by Pyongyang to rein in the outbreak could lead to serious rights violations.

"The latest restrictions, which include putting people under strict isolation and imposing further travel restrictions, will have dire consequences for those already struggling to meet their basic needs," UN rights office spokeswoman Liz Throssell told reporters.

"We urge the... authorities to ensure that all measures adopted to tackle the pandemic are necessary, proportionate, non-discriminatory, time-bound and strictly in line with international human rights law," she said.

Throssell also reiterated a call for countries "to relax sanctions to enable urgent humanitarian and COVID-related assistance" to the impoverished country.

North Korea has one of the world's worst healthcare systems, with poorly equipped hospitals, few intensive care units, and no COVID treatment drugs or mass testing ability, experts say.

"We encourage the DPRK as a matter of urgency to discuss with the UN the opening of channels for humanitarian support, including medicines, vaccines, equipment and other life-saving support," Throssell said.

Now you can read the Jamaica Observer ePaper anytime, anywhere. The Jamaica Observer ePaper is available to you at home or at work, and is the same edition as the printed copy available at https://bit.ly/epaper-login


  1. We welcome reader comments on the top stories of the day. Some comments may be republished on the website or in the newspaper; email addresses will not be published.
  2. Please understand that comments are moderated and it is not always possible to publish all that have been submitted. We will, however, try to publish comments that are representative of all received.
  3. We ask that comments are civil and free of libellous or hateful material. Also please stick to the topic under discussion.
  4. Please do not write in block capitals since this makes your comment hard to read.
  5. Please don't use the comments to advertise. However, our advertising department can be more than accommodating if emailed: advertising@jamaicaobserver.com.
  6. If readers wish to report offensive comments, suggest a correction or share a story then please email: community@jamaicaobserver.com.
  7. Lastly, read our Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy