Health body receives sanctions exemption for hundreds of units, signaling possible rise in virus cases
The World Health Organization (WHO) plans to send hundreds of oxygen treatment units to North Korea, a sign that suggests severe COVID-19 cases may be rising in the country, according to an expert.
The WHO requested the shipment on April 25, just 11 days before Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus announced that COVID-19 is no longer a global health emergency.
Oxygen concentrators are necessary “to treat severe and critical cases of COVID-19 in Intensive Care Units in the health facilities,” a letter dated May 2 and posted on the UNSC website Friday shows.
And while a WHO spokesperson told NK News that “oxygen administration is a routine and regular undertaking in a wide range of patient care,” the organization’s official exemption request does not mention any other use than to treat COVID-19.
Adrian Estermen, a biostatistician and epidemiologist at the University of South Australia, told NK News that “The WHO exemption request sounds like a signal that COVID-19 — or other respiratory conditions like influenza and RSV — are on the rise in the DPRK,” caveating that reliable data is “pretty much impossible to obtain.”
COVID-19 “is still a pandemic,” Estermen said. “And although in some parts of the world case numbers are low, other parts are seeing another wave,” likely due to omicron subvariants, he explained.
North Korea claimed “victory” over the coronavirus weeks after its one and only known outbreak last year. It has maintained austere but at times inconsistent anti-pandemic controls, including masking, quarantine and border entry restrictions.
The WHO plans to send the 500 oxygen treatment units through Dubai, and have North Korea receive them at the border city of Sinuiju or the port city of Nampho, according to the notice. The international organization will have one year to deliver the goods with a total value of $257,500.
It’s unclear how the U.N. health body will ensure the oxygen units reach their intended targets. No foreign aid personnel are left in Pyongyang, and while the WHO said it will work with local staff to ensure the goods will be used for their intended purposes, such individuals are handpicked by the regime.
“All verified items will be handed over to the Ministry of Public Health,” according to the notice. “By implementing these measures the WHO Country Office expects to minimize the possibility of diversion and ensure that these items are strictly used for COVID-19.”
By Ifang Bremer
Seoul Correspondent at NK News