North Korea can do little to treat those infected with COVID-19 given the country’s poor public health system and lack of diagnostic equipment, vaccines and medical treatments. That being said, the country’s state media are repeating claims that tens of thousands of people have “fully recovered.” This raises the question of what standards the country has for a “full recovery.”
A source in Pyongyang told Daily NK on Monday that sick people are considered “fully recovered” after spending seven days in home quarantine or seven to 10 days in a facility.
“They will be released from quarantine even if they still have a fever or cough,” he said.
In short, people are considered “fully recovered” after a certain period of quarantine due to fever or other symptoms.
North Korea recently publicly admitted a COVID-19 outbreak for the first time, noting that patient zero had the Omicron variant. The Omicron variant has a low mortality rate and is often characterized by mild or no symptoms, provided those infected have no underlying disease. In fact, most people infected with the variant can recover naturally.
However, North Koreans appear to be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to low vaccination rates and weaker immunity due to malnutrition brought on by the country’s food shortages. Additionally, the government’s failure to properly diagnose, test, or treat the disease could lead to reinfections or even new variants.
In fact, on May 17, the World Health Organization (WHO) expressed concern about the situation in North Korea, citing the high risk of new strains emerging in places where the virus is widespread.
Daily NK’s source in Pyongyang said North Korean authorities may set up three new quarantine facilities based on observations of outbreak trends in the city.
“[North Korean authorities] plan to build three more temporary quarantine facilities as the number of patients requiring transport increases [to isolation facilities] Increases in Pyongyang,” the source said. “It’s not a big problem because they can build them quickly by mobilizing soldiers.”
Authorities are providing people in existing quarantine facilities with rice mixed with corn or potatoes, he said.
“In the case of the temporary facility in Rangrang district, people get half a bowl of rice with corn and salted broth for breakfast, and noodles and corn with salted broth for lunch,” he added.
However, the facilities housing Pyongyang residents are likely to have better food supplies than facilities in other regions of the country. Given that people being held in facilities outside of Pyongyang are likely to suffer from even worse conditions, they are likely not getting enough nutrients.
Meanwhile, sick people quarantined at home are receiving no care at all from the government.
The source said patients in home quarantine are being managed by the leaders inminban (People’s units), neighborhood police, officers from the local Ministry of State Security, health officials and doctors from local clinics. He said Inminban leaders should “take responsibility” to ensure quarantine patients are eating, sometimes calling them to lend them rice if needed.
The source said “taking responsibility” just means checking that they’re eating, not actually providing them with food. The state does not provide any support, he claimed.
The source also reported that many people are borrowing groceries or buying groceries at markets before self-quarantining at home. “Many people buy and store not only food, but also firewood, salt, vegetables and soybean paste for fear that they too may be quarantined at home,” he said.
Daily necessities prices have been unstable due to supply issues amid North Korea’s protracted border closure. Add in panic buying for fears of home quarantine and expect prices to fluctuate significantly.
Meanwhile, North Korean authorities are arresting and detaining people fleeing quarantine facilities or leaving their homes during their home quarantine.
“People who have been arrested or detained are being returned to their homes by mobile police teams under the direct command of the state’s Epidemic Control Headquarters,” he said.
Since leaving home quarantine without permission is considered a serious violation of party policy, Inminban watches over people in home quarantine day and night and regularly reports to the chain of command.
Nevertheless, some people are still fleeing their quarantine places. Most go in search of food or necessities and arrests are common, the source said.
He further reported that mobile police teams are nailing doors shut after returning refugees home to ensure they cannot escape again. “The guards of Inminban check every day whether everyone is at home, whether they use the corridor, kitchen or first-floor windows, and to check the status of their illness,” he said.
The people of the city complain that these measures create a climate of fear. “People who break quarantine guidelines more than once are considered traitors,” the source explained, adding, “People cannot even think of escaping quarantine again in the face of such intensive measures.”
This article first appeared on Daily NK, which contacts multiple sources inside and outside North Korea to verify information. The diplomat was unable to independently verify the claims.