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North Korea acknowledges breadth of outbreak

SEOUL, South Korea — The coronavirus has been spreading across North Korea “explosively” since late last month, killing six people and leaving 187,800 people in quarantine, the country’s state media reported on Friday.

Health officials made the rare admission of an emerging public health crisis after the country reported its first outbreak of the virus — after long insisting it had no infections and refusing outside humanitarian aid to fight any spread. The announcement of fatalities came as the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, was visiting the national disease-control headquarters on Thursday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said.

In a sign of growing urgency, the state-run Central Television for the first time showed Kim wearing a mask during a Workers’ Party meeting.

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Kim criticized his health officials, saying that the simultaneous spread of fever, with the capital as a center of the outbreak, “shows that there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system,” the North Korean news agency said.

Some analysts warned that North Korea could be headed into a major humanitarian crisis unless the international community persuades it to open up for outside aid to fight the virus.

“We are in the early stage of the spread of vast human misery,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “The nature and scale of the illnesses, deaths, hunger, and starvation can only be established much later.”

North Korea said it had learned of its first outbreak after health officials on Sunday tested people in Pyongyang, the capital, who showed symptoms such as a fever. They were infected with the BA.2 subvariant of the virus, it said.

The country declared a “maximum emergency” and ordered all cities and counties in the nation of 25 million to lock down, and told them to isolate “each working unit, production unit and residential unit from each other.”

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North Korea said 350,000 people had been found to have a fever since late April, including 18,000 on Thursday. It added that 162,200 people had completely recovered. The reports on the outbreak so far have been vague, blaming “a fever whose cause couldn’t be identified.” They did not clarify, for example, how many people with the fever had tested positive.

(New York Times)

Lockdowns likely in Chinese cities

After six weeks of confining people to their homes, enduring food shortages and the constant fear of being forcibly hauled away, Shanghai’s lockdown appears to have an end date. But China’s increasingly fraught battle with Covid-19 is far from over.

Officials in the financial hub said Friday they’re seeking to stop community spread of the virus by May 20, a sign they may finally dismantle the grueling restrictions that have upended lives and disrupted everything from banking to car manufacturing. Yet the prospect of lockdowns across major cities in China still looms large, with Beijing facing a growing list of Covid restrictions that are prompting fears it will soon suffer the same fate.

Once a clear success story, China’s Covid strategy has become a liability. The zero-tolerance approach that kept the virus out for much of the pandemic is flailing in the face of more contagious variants, and patience is dissipating for the travel curbs, enforced quarantines and incessant testing needed to continuously try to eradicate Covid.

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Shanghai’s goal to unwind the lockdown was announced after the city failed in recent days to sustain a three-day stretch of zero infections outside of quarantine areas. That has been a key milestone for local authorities in China to consider an outbreak successfully contained and justify allowing normal life to resume.

Still, if anything President Xi Jinping appears to be embracing ever-tighter Covid restrictions in the face of an unprecedented grassroots backlash against his lockdown strategy and warnings of a sharp economic downturn. Last week the Communist Party’s supreme political body, the Politburo Standing Committee, vowed to ‘’resolutely fight any attempts to distort, question, or deny’' its policy.

For Xi, the political stakes are high. His government has touted China’s fight against Covid as morally superior to those of US and European nations, making it hard to change tack as he looks to secure a precedent-breaking third term as president later this year. That has forced authorities to stay the course and seek to repress internal criticism even as World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — long seen by Beijing as an ally — said the Covid-Zero strategy was no longer sustainable.

‘’Now it is clear to anyone with two eyes that more people are dying from lockdown than from Covid and that it has become an excuse to keep people from moving around,’’ said Anne Stevenson-Yang, a co-founder of J Capital Research Ltd., who spent roughly a quarter-century in China. ‘’This sort of thing tends to feed on itself, so the more repression, the more revolt, and things spin out of control.’’

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The latest move to spur panic came Thursday, when the National Immigration Administration said it will strictly limit non-essential outbound travel for Chinese citizens and curtail access to documents needed to depart. While the move strengthened existing rules rather than instituting new border curbs, it sparked many comments from internet users worried that authorities were trying to prevent people from heading overseas.

‘’It’s like spreading salt on the wound,’’ said Sofia Fang, a Shanghai-based finance professional. ‘’Why are they stopping us from leaving?’’

(Bloomberg)