North Korea promotes traditional medicines in bid to fight Covid outbreak

North Korea is ramping up production of drugs and medical supplies including sterilisers and thermometers as well as encouraging the use of traditional Korean medicines said to reduce fever and pain as it battles an unprecedented coronavirus outbreak.

Traditional medicines were “effective in prevention and cure of the malicious disease,” state-run news agency KCNA said, although no medical evidence exists for those claims.

A Covid wave that North Korea first confirmed last week has fanned concerns over the country’s lack of medical resources and vaccines, with the UN human rights agency warning of “devastating” consequences for its 25 million people.

At least 262,270 more people reported fever symptoms, and one more person had died as of Wednesday evening, KCNA said, citing data from the state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters. It did not specify how many people had tested positive for the virus.

North Korea, which has imposed a nationwide lockdown, has so far reported 1,978,230 people with fever symptoms and 63 deaths, and brought in strict anti-virus measures.

Kee Park, a global health specialist at Harvard medical school who has worked on health care projects in North Korea, said the number of new cases should start to slow as a result of strengthened preventive measures such as travel restrictions and keeping workers separated in groups according to their jobs.

But, Park said, North Korea will struggle to provide treatment for the already large number of people with Covid-19, adding that deaths could reach the tens of thousands given the size of its caseload.

Factories were churning out more syringes, medicines, thermometers and other medical supplies “in a lightning way” in the capital, Pyongyang, and nearby regions, KCNA said, while more isolation wards were installed and disinfection work intensified.

“Thousands of tonnes of salt were urgently transported to Pyongyang city to produce antiseptic solution,” KCNA said.

The reports came after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un criticised ineffective distribution of drugs and slammed officials for their “immature” responses to the epidemic.

In the absence of a national vaccination campaign and Covid treatments, state media have encouraged patients to use painkillers and antibiotics, as well as unverified home remedies, such as gargling salt water, or drinking lonicera japonica tea or willow leaf tea.

“Traditional treatments are the best!” one woman told state broadcasters as her husband described having their children gargle with salted water every morning and night.

An elderly Pyongyang resident said she had been helped by ginger tea and ventilating her room.

“I was first scared by Covid, but after following the doctors’ advice and getting the proper treatments, it turned out not to be a big deal,” she said in a televised interview.

State media have also encouraged patients to use painkillers and fever reducers such as ibuprofen, and amoxicillin and other antibiotics – which do not fight viruses but are sometimes prescribed for secondary bacterial infections.

While it hasn’t claimed that antibiotics and home remedies will eliminate Covid, North Korea has a long history of developing scientifically unproven treatments, including an injection made from ginseng grown in rare earth elements it claimed could cure everything from Aids to impotence.

Some have roots in traditional medicines, while others have been developed to offset a lack of modern drugs or as exports.

The North has so far ignored offers by South Korea and the US to provide medical assistance, as have requests by the World Health Organization (WHO) for more data about the outbreak. Its director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said this week that WHO was “deeply concerned at the risk of further spread” in North Korea, noting that the country had worrying numbers of people with underlying conditions that make them more likely to get severe Covid-19 symptoms.

In China, Shanghai distributed millions of boxes of traditional Chinese medicine, such as herbal products and flu capsules, to treat Covid as the city battled its largest outbreak of the virus.

Three aircraft from North Korea’s Air Koryo arrived in China and returned to Pyongyang on Monday carrying medical supplies, a diplomatic source said on condition of anonymity.

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