Kim rounds on ‘slack’ officials as COVID outbreak rages

Impoverished North Korea has reported more than 1.7 million cases of ‘fever’ in just a few days amid rising concern over the outbreak’s effect.

Kim Jong Un in Mao-style suit in front of party flags berates officials sat with him around a table.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over a meeting of the Politburo of the ruling party where he criticised the response to the COVID-19 outbreak [KCNA via KNS/AFP]

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has accused government officials of being negligent and lazy as the country’s first confirmed outbreak of COVID-19 sweeps across the largely unvaccinated country.

State media published photos of Kim presiding over a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, cigarette in hand, berating the “immaturity in the state capacity for coping with the crisis” as he condemned officials for their “non-positive attitude, slackness and non-activity”.

Only one person at the meeting could be seen wearing a mask.

Since it first acknowledged the COVID-19 outbreak last week, the North has reported more than 1.7 million patients with symptoms of ‘fever’ and the deaths of 62 people. The actual numbers are thought to be much higher, given the country’s limited testing facilities.

Most of the cases have been centred around Pyongyang, which is now in lockdown, although a COVID tracker from the Stimson Center think tank says there have also been significant outbreaks in Kaesong on the southern border and Rason in the northeast.

Three people in orange hazmat suits spray disinfectant at the railway station in Pyongyang
Pyongyang has been locked down, and state media showed pictures of the railway station being disinfected [KCNA via KNS/AFP]

The rapid spread of coronavirus in North Korea, which has one of the world’s worst health systems, has raised alarm across the globe with the World Health Organization (WHO), South Korea and China all offering assistance with diagnostics and treatment. Pyongyang has yet to accept their offers of help and has previously rejected donations of coronavirus vaccines.

Even as Kim criticised officials over the pandemic response, state media said the situation had also taken a “favourable turn,” adding the party meeting discussed “maintaining the good chance in the overall epidemic prevention front”.

The report did not elaborate on how the country came to such a positive assessment.

According to the KCNA state news agency, North Korea has been pushing to better handle “the collection, transport and test of specimen from those persons with fever, while installing additional quarantine facilities”.

KCNA also said health officials have developed a COVID-19 treatment guide aimed at preventing drug overdoses and other problems.

Earlier this week, North Korea mobilised the military to help staff a 24-hour medicine delivery system.

State television showed large numbers of troops gathered in a square to support anti-virus work.

A spokesperson for the United Nations’s human rights office said on Tuesday that measures taken by Pyongyang to fight COVID-19 could have “devastating” consequences for already limited human rights in the country, as the additional virus-related restrictions could make it more difficult for people to feed themselves.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies