May 12, (THEWILL) – North Korea reported its first Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on Thursday, calling it the “gravest national emergency.”
The government, therefore, ordered a national lockdown, with state media saying that an Omicron variant had been detected in the capital, Pyongyang.
North Korea had never confirmed a COVID-19 infection before Thursday, although South Korean and U.S. officials have said there could have been earlier cases in the isolated country, given its trade and travel with China, before it sealed its border to block the virus in early 2020.
“The state’s most serious emergency has occurred: A break emerged in our emergency epidemic prevention front that had been firmly defended until now”, the official KCNA news agency said.
The first public admission of COVID-19 infections highlights the potential for a major crisis in a country that has rejected all international help with vaccinations and kept its borders shut.
As of March, not only had no cases of COVID-19 been reported, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), but there was no official record of any North Koreans being vaccinated.
KCNA said that samples taken on May 8 from people in Pyongyang, who were experiencing fevers showed a sub-variant of the Omicron virus, also known as BA.2.
It did not give the number of cases or say what the source might have been.
Earlier on Thursday, Chinese state television reported North Korea has imposed a stay-at-home order since Tuesday, citing “suspected flu symptoms” among some people.
North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, convened a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful politburo, ordering a “strict lockdown” nationwide and the mobilisation of emergency reserve medical supplies.
“The state epidemic prevention work shall be switched over to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system”, KCNA said.
State television showed Kim wearing a mask upon arrival for the meeting, before taking it off as it began. All other attendees wore masks.
In past footage of such meetings, everyone, but him wore a mask. There was no sign of masks in pictures of a recent big military parade.
For more than two years, Kim has enforced tight restrictions to stop COVID-19, including a ban on travel between provinces.
In July 2020, he declared an emergency and imposed a three-week lockdown on Kaesong town, near the inter-Korean border, after a man who defected to the South in 2017 returned to the city showing COVID symptoms.
According to the latest WHO data, as of the end of March, 64,207 of North Korea’s 25 million people had been tested for COVID-19 and all were negative.
North Korea had declined vaccine supplies from the COVAX sharing programme and the Sinovac Biotech vaccine from China, possibly leaving the vast majority of people in a relatively young country exposed to a higher risk of infection.