Kim Jong-un calls in the military as North Korea grapples with its worst Covid-19 outbreak

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits a pharmacy in Pyongyang, North Korea. Credit: AP

Fifty people have died of suspected Covid-19 in North Korea's first - and worst - acknowledged outbreak of the virus as leader Kim Jong-un blasted the pandemic response.

More than half a million people are in quarantine and 1.2 million have fallen ill with a fever that has rapidly spread among the largely unvaccinated population since April.

Kim ordered his military to respond to the surge of the largely undiagnosed virus outbreak as he accused health officials of failing to distribute medicines to pharmacies due to their “irresponsible work attitude”, state media said on Monday

A lockdown was ordered on Thursday and public health officials, teachers and others have been tasked with identifying people with a fever so they can be quarantined.

A girl disinfects her hands before entering the Kumsong Secondary School No. 2 in North Korea on November 3 2021.

North Korea said it had kept the virus from its borders during the worst of the global pandemic.

While the claim was largely doubted, its strict border closure, large-scale quarantines and propaganda that stressed anti-virus controls as a matter of “national existence” may have staved off a huge outbreak until now.

More than 564,860 people are in quarantine due to the fever, while eight further deaths and 392,920 newly detected fevers were reported on Monday, the North's emergency anti-virus headquarters said.

North Korea is believed to lack Covid tests and is mostly relying on isolating people with symptoms at shelters.

A major outbreak of the virus would put North Korea's broken health care system under considerable strain especially as many of its 26 million people are believed to be unvaccinated, and malnourishment and other conditions of poverty are widespread.

The country turned down millions of Covid vaccine doses offered by the UN-backed Covax distribution programme.

South Korea’s president Yoon Suk Yeol said the South was willing to send vaccines, medicine, equipment and health personnel to the North if it’s willing to accept. South Korean officials say Pyongyang so far has made no request for Seoul’s help.

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