Since then, as The Economist has noted, the virus has been “spreading like wildfire.” Already, more than 2.5 million North Koreans have come down with what the regime is calling an undiagnosed “fever.” At least 67 have died.
Cases of this “fever” continue to increase by close to 200,000 per day, if you trust North Korean reporting.
What limited coverage of the outbreak I’ve seen thus far – there has been virtually none in the Canadian press – has focused on the humanitarian catastrophe that it poses for North Koreans.
Since leader Kim Jong Un doesn’t trust outsiders, he has repeatedly rejected donations of vaccines from COVAX, as well as offers of support from China, Russia, the United States, and South Korea.
So Omicron is spreading rapidly among 25 million unvaccinated North Koreans, many of whom were not in good health in the first place.
What’s more, the last two years have seen the country’s food stocks shrink dramatically, so as Kim begins to lock down the country to mitigate the outbreak, he risks further compromising his people’s food supply. (Rice planting season began a few weeks ago).
Inasmuch as the plight of the North Koreans is tragic, I fear that the issue could easily become much graver, and I wonder whether the fact that so much of the West appears to have moved on from the pandemic is preventing us, collectively, from seeing it.
The science is clear that “the more the virus circulates, the greater the opportunity it has to mutate.” With millions of North Koreans likely to be infected over the next few months, it is hard to imagine that new variants won’t emerge.
If we’re lucky, they won’t cause symptoms that are any worse than those we are already dealing with, and the vaccines we have will continue to stave off the most deadly outcomes.
But if we aren’t, the fall resurgence of the pandemic that the Public Health Agency of Canada is all but promising could be far more damaging than it is anticipated it to be.
In other words, the situation in North Korea could easily become much more than just a humanitarian challenge – our national interests could be at stake.
Canada’s options right now are limited: Kim won’t accept our aid; China isn’t interested in our advice; and we are poorly-positioned to impose our will on anyone.
And while a recent op-ed in the Globe and Mail is absolutely right to call out the City of Toronto for its foolish decision to shut down what had been a successful outreach effort to “overcome vaccine hesitancy” in targeted neighbourhoods, no amount of vaccinating at home will be sufficient to protect us if a rogue variant emerges abroad.
It follows that one can only hope that Ottawa redoubles its efforts to contribute to the global recovery by supporting countries that will accept our assistance, and also by encouraging our allies and partners to do the same.
In sum, this is not a call for Canadian leadership – I don’t think there would be many followers – but it is a recognition of the urgent need for states like Canada to continue to do their fair share to mitigate the global impact of Covid-19 at a time when it seems all too easy to pretend that the pandemic is fully behind us.
For the official account of Canada’s response to Covid-19, see here. On Canada’s global response specifically, see here, and note the difference between Ottawa’s original promise to donate at least 200 million vaccine doses to COVAX by the end of 2022 and the current wording: “Canada has also committed to donating the equivalent of at least 200 million doses to the COVAX Facility by the end of 2022.”
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