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Coronavirus Scare Hampers Humanitarian Work in North Korea

FILE - A rescue worker walks past a notice about the new coronavirus that has broken out in China, at a hospital in Incheon, South Korea, Jan. 20, 2020. Fear of the virus is interfering with humanitarian work in North Korea.

As North Korea steps up efforts to fight the spread of the coronavirus known as 2019-nCoV, fear of the virus is hampering humanitarian work in North Korea, aid group officials said.

Daniel Jasper, the American Friends Service Committee's (AFSC) public education and advocacy coordinator for Asia, said, "The AFSC delegation has temporarily postponed [the trip] due to the coronavirus," adding that the organization plans to send its delegation in the spring. AFSC is currently running a program to help North Korea's local farmers.

Heidi Linton, executive director of Christian Friends of Korea, said the outbreak will affect the group's planned visit to the country in March.

"It's hard to know for sure how long the travel-related challenges will last," said Linton, whose group had been scheduled to treat tuberculosis patients in North Korea.

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As of Thursday, there were no cases of coronavirus reported in North Korea, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) official in Pyongyang.

The respiratory virus that originated in Wuhan has killed about 200 people, and the number of cases topped 9,000, China's health commission reported early Friday. The virus had spread to 18 countries outside China, including South Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada and the U.S., as of Thursday afternoon EDT.

High alert

As the epidemic spreads around the world, North Korea has been taking stepped-up measures to try to prevent the virus from entering the country. It has issued a quarantine and travel restrictions, according to foreign embassies in Pyongyang.

"As a precautionary measure, the North Korean authorities have decided to restrict tourism and travel from China," said a spokesperson for the Swedish Foreign Ministry in an email statement sent to VOA's Korean service.

"A number of flights between North Korea and cities in China have been canceled. The Embassy urges Swedish citizens in North Korea to monitor developments and follow the instructions of local authorities," the spokesperson added.

The U.K. Foreign Ministry said on its website that North Korea had imposed "a month's quarantine and medical checks" on "all foreigners coming from China."

A spokesperson from the U.K. Foreign Ministry told VOA's Korean service that it was monitoring "the safety and security" of its embassy staff in Pyongyang "under regular review."

North Korea has been on a state of high alert to keep the virus from crossing the border it shares with China. Following the outbreak, North Korea temporarily closed off the border, preventing Chinese tourists from entering the country.

North Korea's official newspaper Rodong Sinmun said on Thursday that the government had set up checkpoints nationwide to conduct medical checks on people returning from overseas trips.

The newspaper issued a report Tuesday calling upon the country to fight the outbreak of the virus as a matter of "national existence" as the government takes "emergency measures" to prevent the virus from spreading.

The report said the North Korean government had taken measures at airports and seaports to prevent the virus from entering the country.

North Korea has sent health care workers across the country to promote public hygiene and to check patients with pneumonia for signs of coronavirus, said the report.

Symptoms, precautions

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common signs of the virus infection include flu-like symptoms such as runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat and fever. The CDC said the virus is transmitted between people much like a cold virus, through coughs and sneezes.

In a separate report on Wednesday, Rodong Sinmun advised readers to take precautions such as wearing masks when going outside, washing hands often and keeping a distance from wild animals.

In this image made from video, North Korea's Ministry of Health Director Kim Dong Gun talks about the country's efforts to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, at the Ministry of Health in Pyongyang, North Korea, Jan. 30, 2020.
In this image made from video, North Korea's Ministry of Health Director Kim Dong Gun talks about the country's efforts to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, at the Ministry of Health in Pyongyang, North Korea, Jan. 30, 2020.

The new strain of virus was believed to have been initially transmitted from animals to humans before it was transmitted between humans. When the outbreak began in Wuhan, people who contracted the virus were reportedly exposed to a large seafood and animal market in the city. Subsequently, people who had no exposure to the market contracted 2019-nCoV.

On Wednesday, North Korea's Central KCTV broadcast information about the symptoms of "the life-threatening new coronavirus." The broadcaster also warned citizens to cover their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing as it reported how the international community was coping with the infection.

North Korea has poor medical facilities, and it is uncertain whether the country's health care system could handle an outbreak if it occurs.

This is not the first time North Korea has taken tough measures to deal with a deadly epidemic.

In response to the SARS epidemic in 2003, North Korea restricted people from entering the country from regions affected by the virus.

In 2003, China reported 5,327 cases of SARS.

During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, which began in Africa, North Korea shut its borders to tourists and imposed a quarantine on diplomats and aid workers entering the country.

Christy Lee contributed to this report, which originated in VOA's Korean service.