North Korean officials shown in a discussion in this photo published on May 15. (Rodong Sinmun-News1)

North Korea’s government is failing to provide much assistance to people quarantined at home after displaying symptoms of COVID-19.

Daily NK recently conducted an interview with a resident of Hyesan, Yanggang Province — a man in his 30s identified by his family name of Kim — who, after displaying symptoms of COVID-19, was placed in home quarantine for 10 days. He provided a detailed account of how people cope with home quarantine in an area outside of the capital city of Pyongyang.

In mid-May, Kim reported a sore throat, headache and a fever over 38 degrees Celsius to his inminban [people’s unit]. He was then told to home quarantine. However, unable to prepare food or medicine before his isolation period began, he and his family worried a great deal that their food would run out.

Kim said he received no grains such as wheat or corn, drinking water or medicines from the government, even though he went into isolation in accordance with the state’s emergency quarantine protocols. He said the only thing he received from the state was two posters to stick on the door that read, “Under Quarantine.”

Daily NK’s interview with Kim has been published below. 

DNK: What was the hardest part of your home quarantine period? 

Kim: “We didn’t have much food at home. My family and I gathered the grain and side dishes, along with all the other food we could eat like salt, bean paste and drinking water, and divided it all up so we could eat it over a week’s time. It’s a big problem if food runs out during the quarantine. Fortunately, we contacted a close neighbor who gave us a bit of cabbage, beans and corn. What I realized is that close neighbors are better than distant relatives. Because of regional lockdowns, relatives can’t come even if you call them, but we received help from a neighbor nearby. Still, we were lucky that we didn’t get put in an [isolation] facility.”

DNK: Were you completely forbidden from going outside during the quarantine period? Or could you briefly go out to buy medicine or food after receiving permission?

Kim: “We couldn’t go outside to buy medicine or food. We stepped outside briefly to go to the bathroom. We don’t have a toilet in our home, so we had to collect the refuse in a bucket during the day and dispose of it outside. One member of our family would dump it in the garden every night after getting permission from the visiting doctor. This was a real pain to do.” 

DNK: Did the doctor provide you with any diagnoses or prescriptions during his daily house calls?

Kim: “During his daily housecalls, he took my temperature. All he really did was ask where it hurt and how much my condition had improved. He couldn’t give me medicine or any other assistance, even though he’s a doctor. Even if I felt ill, I told him I’d gotten better because I was afraid that if I told him the symptoms had worsened, I’d get sent to a facility. The thing I was most afraid of was getting sent to a facility, since I had no idea when I’d return home from one of those places.”

DNK: If you didn’t receive any medicine, did your fever naturally break during the quarantine without any treatments?

DNK: “We had a bit of fever medication and opium at home. People in Hyesan all have a bit of opium or Chinese compound aminopyrine and phenacetin tablets in their houses. We also had some aspirin, though it was domestically made. So I did take some medicine because we had some, though it wasn’t a lot. And I continued to gargle using salt water. I survived by taking medicine and gargling without any help [from the government]. When the high fever didn’t break, it was really tough. I remember thinking that it wouldn’t be this painful if I had good medication or injections.”

DNK: According to statistics announced by North Korea, the number of fever cases is decreasing. Do you think the government’s disease control policies or the way the government is managing suspected COVID-19 cases is helping to bring case numbers down? 

Kim: “If the government says the number of infectious fever cases has decreased, I have little choice but to think they’ve decreased. However, I think they should prevent COVID-19 cases using new [modern] medications rather than Oriental medicine. They tell us to eat barrenwort or green onion roots, but this doesn’t work for some people, whose symptoms sometimes get worse and end up dying. So, I think the number of cases will fall if we give people proper medicine. Also, people are very malnourished. Their malnutrition is terrible given that the border has been closed for two years. 

I think it’s also a problem that the quarantine standards aren’t clear. People who got COVID-19 are released from quarantine because the government says they are fully recovered, but when their high fever reemerges, they are put back into quarantine, with officials saying they were reinfected. The state’s quarantine measures have been fickle. We are told that we shouldn’t be scared of COVID-19 and that the country can defeat the disease through quarantine efforts. But can we defeat an infectious disease through propaganda alone?”

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

Read in Korean

Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.