The first shipments of international medical aid are this week to arrive at North Korea’s borders to shore up its defenses against COVID-19, but strict border controls could mean that the stream of supplies remains a trickle.
Some aid organizations had to get emergency sanction exemptions from the UN to clear the way for the shipments and are now navigating North Korea’s border controls imposed to shut out the virus.
North Korea has reported no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus that was first detected in China late last year, although a top US military official last week said that he is “fairly certain” there are infections in North Korea.
North Korea is especially vulnerable to an outbreak, as its health system lacks resources, in part because of international sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, aid organizations said.
Aid groups have made urgent pleas for the UN to grant sanctions exemptions and it has approved six-month waivers for the WHO, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and Doctors Without Borders to send thermometers, portable ventilators, resuscitators, gloves, face shields, masks, gowns and goggles.
The UN Children’s Fund, which has said that it did not need a waiver to import personal protective equipment such as gloves, protective suits and respiratory equipment, expected its first shipment to be delivered to North Korea by land from China this week.
However, North Korea’s own strict border quarantine measures have kept some initial shipments waiting, humanitarian sources said.
More supplies of items from masks to test machines, sent by international agencies, were being held up in China, despite North Korea asking for them, said two sources with knowledge of the matter, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“North Koreans need assistance and have asked for it, but things are now on hold,” one source from a humanitarian group said.
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency on Friday last week reported that as part of “super strong prevention measures,” all imported goods were being quarantined for 10 days.
State media have shown workers in protective gear disinfecting trains and trucks.
Doctors Without Borders media coordinator Maya Zahran told reporters that the group’s supplies had arrived in Beijing and the border city of Dandong, and North Korean authorities had agreed to facilitate transport, despite the border closures.
She said that she could not confirm when the supplies would reach North Korea.
The IFRC said that it was working hard to send “urgently required goods,” but had to consider “restrictions on incoming goods” to North Korea.
It did not say when it expected its shipment to arrive.
The WHO did not respond to calls from reporters.
Experts have said that the planned supplies to help contain the coronavirus in North Korea are far short of what it needs.
Harvard Medical School’s Kee Park, who has worked on healthcare projects in North Korea, said that a lack of testing equipment might mean that infections are going undiscovered.
“To confirm it you have to actually do confirmatory diagnostic testing,” he said.
North Korea has said that it is monitoring thousands of people with possible symptoms.
Russia said that it had donated 1,500 coronavirus test kits at North Korea’s request.
“We should do everything in our power to provide help without delay, because this is an emergency situation,” Park said.
North Korea has a high number of doctors per capita, and the authoritarian government is capable of controlling or blocking the movement of people.
However, its health system is chronically under-resourced, defectors and foreign medical experts said.
Garment factories were manufacturing masks instead of clothes, state media reported.
On Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un broke ground on a new hospital in the capital, Pyongyang.
He lamented the poor health sector and ordered that the facility be completed by October.
Many North Korean defectors have said that sick people have to rely on smuggled medicine or illicit drugs for treatment.
Seoul-based Severance Hospital International Health Care Center director John Linton said that some doctors scoured mountains for medicinal herbs.
North Korea has made “indirect” requests to South Korean aid groups for supplies including masks, said Linton, who has worked on building operating rooms and tuberculosis projects in North Korea.
He did not know if any had been sent.
Sanctions prohibit the import of computers or metal objects to North Korea, which restricts its ability to repair medical equipment, Linton said.
“IV [intravenous] fluid is actually made in hospitals,” he said. “Beer bottles or whatever bottles are used as containers for IV fluids, made at home.”
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