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North Koreans ignore government advice to wear masks to prevent COVID-19

Passengers on a tram wear surgical masks on Jan. 24, 2020, in Hong Kong, China. (Willie Siau/SOPA Images/Zuma Press/TNS)
March 19, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Residents of North Korea, facing a confusing mix of warnings and an information gag order that has left them uninformed about the COVID-19 epidemic, are ignoring the advice of authorities to wear face masks in public to prevent the spread of the deadly illness, RFA has learned.

As of Friday afternoon, North Korea has still not reported a single confirmed case of coronavirus. The government has, however, taken comprehensive preventative measures, such as cancelling large events, quarantining entire counties, and converting a large hotel in the capital Pyongyang into an isolation center. Experts believe that it is extremely unlikely that North Korea is virus-free.

Sources told RFA’s Korean Service March 6 that interest in masks among North Koreans is very low because the government has not been forthcoming with how widely COVID-19 has spread.

“These days, quarantine authorities are emphasizing that we should wear masks to prevent the new virus from spreading, but nobody cares about masks, and no one is rushing off to the markets to buy them,” a Pyongyang resident told RFA.

“The central quarantine agency is saying that the masks will help block the coronavirus, but people are more concerned because food prices have skyrocketed, so not many people are looking for masks,” the source said.

The U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do not recommend that healthy people wear masks or respirators in public to protect themselves from COVID-19, but officials in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan say that they should wear masks in crowded places. Masks worn by the sick can prevent some of the droplets expelled by a cough or sneeze from going airborne.

The source said people in North Korea are not buying masks because they do not know how severe the situation is locally.

“This is because the authorities are only emphasizing the risk of the coronavirus. They aren’t disclosing how the disease is spreading, the number of infected people by region and the number of deaths,” the source said.

A second source, a resident of North Hamgyong province, told RFA on March 8 that the reason people lack information about COVID-19 is because of a gag order in affected areas.

“In areas where the coronavirus has been spread and people have died, the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] has ordered local residents not to reveal anything about the situation,” said the second source.

“Residents who think authorities are deliberately covering up the number of patients and deaths are instead stockpiling food and fever reducers instead of spending money on masks.”

But once the authorities advised the public to wear masks, they started to appear in the markets as savvy entrepreneurs hoped to cash in, the first source said.

But buying masks would seem to be a luxury for most as the average monthly government salary is less than $5.00.

“North Korean masks, which have not been proven to be effective, are traded at 3,000 North Korean won (U.S. $0.37) to 8,000 won ($1.00). Those made in China go for about 7,000-8,000 won, and South Korean masks, known for their high quality, are sold at 12,000 won ($1.50),” the first source said.

Residents are not looking to shell out money for the masks despite the advisory.

“The residents just don’t care about the coronavirus. The authorities have not revealed the exact number of patients and infections even though there seems to be a high number of suspected infections,” said the first source.

“The common people are having a hard time making a living, so they’re not interested in masks, they only worry about the price of food going up.”

The second source said that rather than buying masks, people in North Hamgyong are spending their money on drugs.

“The authorities are emphasizing that people wear masks to prevent coronavirus infections, but some residents here are absurdly arguing that ice [the local street name for crystal meth] is more effective,” the second source said.

“Mask prices are falling in the marketplaces these days. Meanwhile the price of ice is suddenly on the rise as it is a popular belief that meth is a cure-all drug, and can prevent the invasion of the virus and boost immunity in users,” said the second source.