Dr. Kee B. Park (@keepark) is director of the Korea Health Policy Project at Harvard Medical School. He has worked alongside North Korean doctors during more than 20 visits to North Korea and is a member of the National Committee on North Korea, which facilitates principled engagement between the US and North Korea. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)If I learned one thing after performing countless operations alongside surgeons in Pyongyang over the past 15 years, it’s North Koreans do not throw anything away.
I have used scalpels dulled from reuse to make incisions. One time I watched an anesthesiologist use his hands to squeeze a bag every three to four seconds to ventilate a patient for several hours during an operation.
It was business as usual in a place where medical equipment like mechanical ventilators are scarce. And I have always admired their ability to work with limited resources.
But now I fear for the safety of the doctors and nurses, as well as their ability to care for the surge of Covid-19 patients in the hospitals.
With symptomatic cases accounting for roughly 7% of the population of 25 million, the outbreak is a disaster for North Korea.
We need to help North Korea immediately. Given the entire population has yet to be vaccinated, the death toll could be unprecedented.
North Korea, like China, has adopted a zero-Covid strategy for managing the virus. To its credit, this strategy of prioritizing the prevention of the virus from entering its borders seemed highly effective, with apparently no confirmed cases for over two years.
Now, the virus has breached North Korea’s defenses. And the relatively weak ability of North Korea to respond to the massive outbreak is alarming.
If this is their maximum capacity, it would be impossible to test the current number of symptomatic patients — 1.72 million and counting — let alone their contacts. They also need Covid-19 tests to confirm diagnosis before initiating Paxlovid. We should send diagnostics in sufficient quantities now; they are flying blind.
Immediate food aid is needed to mitigate hunger for those who lack the supplies to weather the lockdowns.
The risk of the virus entering via cargo and possibly foreigners was not worth the benefit the vaccines provided. They were overreliant on their ability to keep the virus out and therefore unprepared for the outbreak.
The first group of people to be vaccinated should be the frontline health workers as they are facing an onslaught of Covid-19 patients each day.
When delivering assistance to North Korea, the “who” and “how” are as important as the “what.” A nationwide crisis requires all actors to work together.
The United Nations is in the best position to coordinate the different agencies, such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF, World Food Programme and nongovernmental organizations; to manage the complex regulations and logistics; and to help implement them alongside the North Korean government.
The monitoring and evaluation requirements should not be a sticking point right now — people’s lives are at stake. We should also take a solidarity approach and not demand North Korea ask for help first. Our hands should go out first; their need is clear.
North Korea needs to become more flexible as well. They should not try to manage the crisis by patching together isolated aid packages from individual organizations. We need a clear focal point of communication to coordinate with the international community. The obvious counterpart to the United Nations is the DPRK Mission in New York.
All sides need to have their eyes on containing the pandemic. It’s in everyone’s interest to help North Korea contain this outbreak — and prevent future ones.