Five North Korean health workers, dressed in bright red hazmat suits, stride towards an ambulance to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak that the government is treating with antibiotics and traditional treatments due to a lack of vaccines.
The remote country is one of just two that has yet to launch a vaccine program, despite claiming to be COVID-free until last week.
It is now gathering troops, including the army and a public awareness campaign, to combat a “explosive” breakout, according to authorities.
Vice Minister of Public Health Kim Hyong Hun stated on state television on Monday that the country had converted from quarantine to a treatment system to deal with the hundreds of thousands of suspected “fever” cases recorded each day.
The hazmat team and masked personnel were seen opening windows, cleaning desks and machinery, and spraying disinfectant, according to the broadcaster.
To treat COVID and its symptoms, state media have advised patients to take pain relievers and fever reducers such ibuprofen, amoxicillin, and other antibiotics, which do not fight viruses but are sometimes administered for secondary bacterial infections.
While the media earlier dismissed immunizations as “no panacea,” they now counsel gargling salt water three times a day or drinking lonicera japonica or willow leaf tea.
“Traditional treatments are the greatest!” one woman exclaimed to state television while her husband described their children gargling with salty water every morning and night.
An elderly Pyongyang resident claimed that ginger tea and ventilation had helped her.
“I was first afraid of COVID,” she stated in a televised interview, “but after following the physicians’ recommendations and getting the necessary therapies, it turned out not to be a huge concern.”
Kim Jong Un, the country’s leader, said on Sunday that drugs reserves were not reaching people, and ordered the army medical corps to help stabilize supplies in Pyongyang, where the outbreak appears to be centered, after state news agency KCNA reported 392,920 new cases of fever and eight new deaths.
According to KCNA, the total number of fever-stricken people was 1,213,550, with 50 deaths. It didn’t disclose how many COVID-positive infections were suspected.
Authorities claim that many of the deaths were caused by persons who were “careless in taking drugs due to a lack of awareness and comprehension” of the Omicron variety and the proper treatment approach.
The World Health Organization has sent North Korea some health kits and other supplies, but has not disclosed what pharmaceuticals are in them. China and South Korea, Pyongyang’s neighbors, have pledged to help if Pyongyang wants it.
While North Korea does not claim that antibiotics and home remedies would cure COVID, it has a history of producing scientifically questionable medicines, such as an injectable produced from ginseng cultivated in rare earth elements that purported to cure anything from AIDS to impotence.
Some are based on traditional treatments, while others were created to compensate for a lack of modern medications or as “made in North Korea” exports.
Experts say North Korea’s medical system is grossly under-resourced, despite having a large number of qualified doctors and experience mobilizing for health emergencies.
An independent United Nations human rights investigator claimed it was beset by “under-investment in infrastructure, medical personnel, equipment, and medicine, erratic power supplies, and inadequate water and sanitation facilities” in a March report.
Many North Koreans, according to Kim Myeong-Hee, 40, who fled to South Korea in 2003, rely on folk medicines because of such deficiencies.
“Even if we go to the hospital, no drugs are available. Medical equipment could not be used since there was no electricity “she claimed.
When she was diagnosed with acute hepatitis, she was ordered to take minari — a type of water parsley made famous by the 2020 film of the same name – every day and to eat earthworms if she was suffering from another, unknown condition.
In the 1990s, home cures had occasionally failed to avert deaths during epidemics, according to Kim.