Faced with soaring COVID-19 cases and a lack of vaccines, North Korea is turning to traditional medicine, home remedies and antibiotics to fight the virus.
Rodong Sinmun, a state-run newspaper in North Korea, has would have advised people with mild symptoms of COVID-19 to self-medicate with willow or honeysuckle tea three times a day. Hot drinks can ease some symptoms such as sore throat, but they cannot be considered an effective treatment for COVID-19.
State media also encouraged patients to gargle with salt water and take antibiotics to fight the disease, Reuters reports. Since COVID-19 is caused by a virus and not by bacteria, taking antibiotics will have no direct impact on the infection.
Daily newspaper articles bragged about how the army has been deployed to help distribute drugs across the country, but it is unclear which drugs these are.
“Pharmaceutical factories […] and medical device factories across the country have increased production by focusing efforts on the production of medicines and emergency medical supplies, in line with the maximum epidemic prevention emergency situation,” said an article by Rodong Sinmun on North Korea’s COVID response.
Kim Jong-un previously claimed that the country recorded no COVID-19 cases in 2020 and 2021 because it took the decision to close its borders at the start of the pandemic.
State authorities only publicly announced the first cases on May 12, indicating that the epidemic appeared in April. However, some outside observers suspect that COVID-19 cases have been present in the country for some time.
The number of documented cases increased dramatically in less than a month. As of May 19, the total number of people with fever was over 2,241,610, of whom at least 754,810 are under medical care, according to Rodong Simnoun. The current death toll is 65. North Korea is believed to be reporting its COVID-19 cases simply as a “fever” because the country lacks widespread testing.
There is no evidence that anyone in the country has received a COVID-19 vaccine, which makes this recent outbreak all the more concerning. North Korea was offered millions of doses of AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines through the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVAX program, but rejected them. Following the recent epidemic, the WHO has since said the offer is still on the table and that they have even drawn up a vaccine rollout plan for the country.
“It is vital that the government acts now to protect the right to health of one of the world’s populations with the least access to vaccines and one of its most fragile health systems. This means providing access to vaccines without discrimination and ensure a transparent vaccine distribution plan that is subject to public scrutiny“said Boram Jang, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International, in a statement Last week.
“The North Korean government should immediately establish plans to secure Covid-19 vaccines for its population by cooperating with the international community,” Jang continued.
If the situation is not resolved quickly, many fear that the country will experience a crisis on par with the brutal famine in the 1990s.