SEOUL: North Korea has ordered a five-day lockdown in the capital over “respiratory illness”, a report said on Wednesday, in what appears to be the first city-wide restrictions since Pyongyang declared victory over Covid-19 in August.

Residents of the North Korean capital have been ordered to stay in their homes from Wednesday to Sunday and they must submit to multiple temperature checks every day, Seoul-based site NK News reported, citing a government notice. The notice did not mention Covid-19, but said the illnesses currently spreading in the capital included the common cold.

The government order comes a day after NK News, citing sources in Pyongyang, reported that people in North Korea’s largest city appeared to be stocking up on goods in anticipation of a lockdown.

It is unclear if other areas have imposed similar lockdowns and state media has not announced any new measures. The Korean peninsula is currently in the grip of what weather forecasters have described as a Siberian cold snap, with temperatures in Pyongyang dropping as low as -22 Celsius.

North Korea’s neighbour and key trading partner China recently abandoned its zero-Covid policies, and battled a wave of infections that overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums. North Korea has maintained a rigid blockade since the start of the pandemic, but does allow some trade with China.

Pyongyang acknowledged its first Covid outbreak in April last year, but declared victory over the virus just three months later, calling it a “miracle”.

Experts, including the World Health Organisation, have long questioned Pyongyang’s Covid statistics and claims to have brought the outbreak under control.

North Korea has one of the world’s worst healthcare systems, with poorly equipped hospitals, few intensive care units and no Covid treatment drugs

It is not believed to have vaccinated any of its 25 million people, although reports indicate it may have received some vaccines from China.

Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2023

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