Red Cross gets sanctions exemption for NKorea virus aid

The Red Cross said Monday it had obtained an exemption to United Nations sanctions against North Korea to provide testing kits and medical equipment against a possible coronavirus outbreak.

“The potential for an outbreak of COVID-19 in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea poses a threat to millions of people who are already in need of humanitarian assistance,” the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said in a statement.

IFRC’s Asia Pacific chief Xavier Castellanos was quoted as saying that the sanctions exemption was “a life-saving intervention and an important measure to ensure that sanctions do not bear a negative impact on the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

“We know that there is urgent need of personal protective gear and testing kits, items vital to prepare for a possible outbreak,” he said in the statement.

The exemption was granted by the United Nations Sanctions Committee after the US said last week that it would look positively at requests for sending assistance.

Analysts say North Korea’s self-imposed isolation in the face of the coronavirus epidemic raging in neighbouring China is its only method of protection from an outbreak that would wreak havoc given its crumbling health system.

The country was among the first to seal its border with China — its main provider of trade and aid — and has since suspended flights and train services, banned tourists, and imposed 30 days of quarantine on resident foreigners.

The Red Cross, which has had a permanent presence in North Korea since 1995, said it had already sent volunteers to the country’s public health ministry “to support COVID-19 screening and to promote effective hygiene practices”.

The Geneva-based organisation said they would work with health staff and government departments “to engage with communities and visit remote households that are hard to reach”.