Despite its relative isolation, post-Soviet Central Asia has not been immune from the COVID-19 coronavirus. In mid-March, after the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized the illness as a global pandemic, the first outbreak appeared in Kazakhstan; several days later, infections were found among the populations of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan; it was not until April 30 that the first cases were reported in Tajikistan. The number of coronavirus infections in Central Asia have exceeded 70,500 as of early this month, with Kazakhstan reporting 47,171 infected citizens, Kyrgyzstan having found 7,377, Uzbekistan 9,829, and Tajikistan 6,159 (Inbusiness.kz, July 5). Yet, throughout this time and into the present, the government of Turkmenistan has steadfastly denied the presence of COVID-19 in its own country. Even as Ashgabat continues to assert that it is coronavirus-free, however, anecdotal evidence has increasingly indicated otherwise.
In recent weeks, news emerged of “temporary” mosque closures in Turkmenistan as part of the state’s Preparedness Plan to Combat Acute Infectious Diseases (Arzuw News, July 16). Moreover, the government has issued a mask order to its citizens (Tdh.gov.tm, Khronika Turkmenistana, July 13). Yet, notably, the authorities declared that the mask requirement was motivated by elevated levels of dust in the air, not a coronavirus outbreak (Khronika Turkmenistana, July 13). Ashgabat’s persistent denials become even more inexplicable given the latest reports that President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s son-in-law Annanazar Rejepov has allegedly died of COVID-19 (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 21).
What makes the Turkmenistan’s claims so extraordinary is that all four of its immediate neighbors—Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Iran—have reported significant viral outbreaks. Fearing contamination, in late February, Turkmenistan closed its borders with Iran (Khronika Turkmenistana, April 28).
The disparity between news reported by Turkmenistan’s opposition in exile and the tightly controlled government media has rarely been so divergent. Turkmenistani Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov sought to bolster the official claims on April 22. While admitting that there were two in-country quarantine camps for arrivals from abroad, in Turkmenabad and Turkmenbashi, he nevertheless insisted they held no infected people (Ferghana Information Agency, June 12). The following day, the WHO announced it wanted to send a mission to Turkmenistan to verify the government’s claims.
Seeking to promote its version of events, Turkmenistan’s government solicited a testimonial from Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Blokhin. During a June 11 press briefing, Moscow’s diplomat in Ashgabat said, “according to official figures, there is no coronavirus in Turkmenistan, and we see this by indirect evidence. If there was something, it would be impossible to withhold such information. At Ashgabat’s Tekinka Bazaar or at the Russian market, such information would appear even faster than in the media. But even in the bazaars, this information does not exist. Therefore, we are inclined to believe the Turkmen side” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 15).
Stymied by access to government medical data, independent sources began reporting a month ago that an outbreak of a similar deadly respiratory illness, acute pneumonia, was overwhelming hospitals in Turkmenistan. According to these reports, over the past several months, patients exhibiting symptoms similar to COVID-19 and dying in dramatic numbers were forcing doctors to work in protective suits (Khronika Turkmenistana, June 16).
On June 23, the United States embassy in Ashgabat waded into the controversy, issuing a health alert that reported, “While there are no official reports of positive COVID-19 cases in Turkmenistan, the U.S. Embassy has received reports of local citizens with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 undergoing COVID-19 testing and being placed in quarantine in infectious diseases hospitals for up to fourteen days” (Tm.usembassy.gov, June 23). What especially irritated the Turkmenistani authorities was that this alert specifically warned in-country US citizens to comply with security measures to avoid coronavirus infection (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 24).
The alert generated an immediate and angry response the same day from Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which noted, “In particular, it is alleged that citizens with symptoms of diseases caused by a new type of infection are being tested, who subsequently can be sent to compulsory quarantine without control over amenities and for an indefinite period of time. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan notes the invalidity and bias of this kind of ‘fake’ information” (Mfa.gov.tm, June 23).
During a June 24 interview, the director of the United Nations’ local office in Turkmenistan, Elena Panova, stated that, according to information received from the host government, no cases of COVID-19 infection had been reported in the country. “Perhaps one of the reasons,” she suggested, “is that the government of Turkmenistan imposed travel restrictions on time and closed its borders very early.” Panova additionally emphasized that Turkmenistan has a particularly low population density—13 people per square kilometer. And beyond the capital of Ashgabat, there are no densely populated cities, a situation that produces a de facto social distancing (Un.org, June 24).
The Turkmenistani government is now at least discussing issues arising from COVID-19 with its former Soviet neighbors. Notably, a special meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Healthcare Cooperation Council, held via video conference on June 30, examined ways to strengthen collaboration to prevent and treat COVID-19 outbreaks within the bloc (Vechernii Bishkek, July 4).
The issue of Turkmenistan’s true exposure to COVID-19 was supposed to become clearer in the first half of July, with a visit to the country by a WHO expert team beginning on July 6. The work of the delegation lasted ten days. But its published findings proved somewhat ambiguous and veiled in diplomatic niceties. The WHO reiterated the Turkmenistani government’s declaration that it has seen no cases of COVID-19 to date, and it commended the authorities’ readiness to adopt a preparedness plan, while arguing the country was equipped to deal with a potential outbreak. But the global health body did not actually weigh in on the veracity of the government’s claims regarding the absence of coronavirus cases, while conspicuously urging officials to adopt “critical public health measures in Turkmenistan, as if COVID-19 was circulating” (Un.org, July 15). And some critical Turkmen activists based abroad have alleged that Ashgabat removed patients exhibiting coronavirus-like symptoms from local hospital wards prior to the WHO team’s arrival (Coda Story, July 20). Notably, after the visit, the government promptly closed places of worship, markets and stores (Ferghana Information Agency, July 21). Nearly four months after the pandemic first appeared in post-Soviet Central Asia, the global community seems no closer to fully understanding the situation inside Turkmenistan.