North Korea is scrambling to contain an “explosive” outbreak of Covid infections and has drafted in its military to help.
The official tally of cases surged to 1.2 million on Sunday from 820,630 a day earlier, state media KCNA reported. There were a further eight deaths for a cumulative total of 50, it said.
The skyrocketing numbers over the weekend prompted a sympathetic response from Seoul.
South Korea‘s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, offered vaccines, medical equipment and health personnel to help North Korea contain its first confirmed Covid-19 outbreak.
Yoon said on Monday he was willing to provide humanitarian aid to its isolated neighbour, which many experts say could be vulnerable to the pandemic because of its undeveloped health network and lack of vaccines.
“If North Korea responds (to our support), we will spare no medicines including Covid-19 vaccines, medical equipment and health personnel,” said Yoon in a speech at the plenary session of the National Assembly.
Seoul’s unification ministry, responsible for relations between the two nations, said it would soon propose a plan of support to the North with working-level talks with its neighbour, it said on Monday.
The ministry said it had expressed willingness to provide medicines, from vaccines to test kits, as well as technical cooperation, based on the South’s experience with quarantine.
Leader Kim Jong Un has ordered North Korea‘s military to stabilise distribution of Covid-19 medicines in the capital, Pyongyang, state media said.
Last week brought the North‘s first acknowledgment of an “explosive” outbreak, with experts warning it could wreak devastation in a country with limited medical supplies and no vaccine programme.
Drugs procured by the state were not reaching people in a timely and accurate way, Kim told an emergency politburo meeting on Sunday, before visiting pharmacies near the capital’s Taedong River, state news agency KCNA said.
Kim ordered immediate deployment of the “powerful forces” of the army’s medical corps to “stabilise the supply of medicines in Pyongyang City,” it added.
Although authorities had ordered distribution of national reserves of medicine, pharmacies were not well-equipped to perform their functions smoothly, Kim added, the agency said.
Among their shortcomings were a lack of adequate drug storage, while salespeople were not equipped with the proper sanitary clothing and hygiene, the leader said.
He criticised the “irresponsible” work attitude, organisation and execution by the cabinet and the public health sector, it added.
The North has blamed a large number of the deaths on people who were “careless in taking drugs” because of a lack of knowledge about the Omicron variant of coronavirus and its correct treatment.
• Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard