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Qishloq Ovozi

Less than two weeks after the announcement of the first case of the coronavirus in Uzbekistan, there were already more than 28,000 people in quarantine centers. Some areas were actually cargo containers arranged in rows that resembled refugee camps.

Uzbek officials had long claimed success in battling the spread of the coronavirus, and the figures they offered seemed to support this. But in recent weeks, Uzbek citizens have reported very dire conditions in hospitals and quarantine centers.

Uzbek authorities seemed to be prepared for the looming health crisis once it became apparent the coronavirus was becoming a global pandemic.

The first official case in Uzbekistan of the virus -- which first originated in China -- was reported on March 15.

A week later, Uzbekistan closed all its borders and the government ordered quarantine centers set up to temporarily house mainly migrant workers that would be returning from abroad in the coming weeks. It also created a special department to run the centers.

Although Uzbekistan seemed to be doing quite well in confronting the coronavirus early on, the situation soon seemed to start spiraling out of control.

But was it ever really under control?

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, reported on January 17 about a wave of flu that had hit the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

It was the usual annual flu, but the children’s department of the Tashkent provincial hospital was overwhelmed and children -- some with high fevers -- were forced to sit or lie down and wait on the floor of the hospital’s reception area.

An officer raises his hand as a traffic policeman checks the ID of a driver at a checkpoint amid the ongoing coronavirus disease pandemic in Tashkent on July 23.
An officer raises his hand as a traffic policeman checks the ID of a driver at a checkpoint amid the ongoing coronavirus disease pandemic in Tashkent on July 23.

Tashkent is, of course, in Tashkent Province, and so is most of the country's money, its fanciest stores, and the best-equipped medical facilities. If that was the situation at one of main hospitals in Tashkent Province, one can only guess what the conditions were like in some of the regional hospitals far from the capital.

Officials in Kazakhstan reported their first cases of the coronavirus on March 13, just two days before Uzbek authorities made their announcement.

On April 1, Kazakhstan reported 369 registered cases of coronavirus in the country, while Uzbekistan reported it had 172.

On April 16, Kazakhstan’s Tengrinews website reported that “Uzbekistan has passed Kazakhstan in the number of those ill with coronavirus.”

The report said that as of "April 15 at 22:30" in Uzbekistan there were 1,302 registered cases of the coronavirus, while in Kazakhstan the figure was 1,295.

That Uzbekistan would have more cases than any other country in Central Asia seemed inevitable: the population of Uzbekistan is more than 34 million, while Kazakhstan, the next most populous country in Central Asia, has some 18.7 million people.

Perhaps even more importantly, at least 2 million Uzbek citizens -- some say this figure may actually be double -- are migrant laborers working abroad, most of them in Russia.

On May 29, Uzbek First Deputy Labor Minister Erkin Muhitdinov said nearly 500,000 of these migrant workers had already returned to Uzbekistan because they had lost their jobs in other countries.

As of July 29, Uzbekistan officially had some 22,100 cases and just 127 deaths from COVID-19.
As of July 29, Uzbekistan officially had some 22,100 cases and just 127 deaths from COVID-19.

More have come home since then and most came through Russia, by bus or car, often spending time in makeshift camps on the Russian-Kazakh border with hundreds of other migrants waiting for permission to cross into Kazakhstan and make their way back to Uzbekistan.

The chance of being infected and spreading the virus in such conditions should have noticeably increased under such circumstances.

But for some reason, the number of reported cases in Kazakhstan continued to climb, while in Uzbekistan the number rose only slightly and, to date, Uzbekistan has not reported a single day of double-digit deaths, very unusual when compared with four of its five neighboring countries. (Turkmenistan claims to not have had anyone die from COVID-19.)

As of July 29, Kazakhstan had more than 86,000 reported infections and 793 deaths from the coronavirus, while Uzbekistan had some 22,100 cases and just 127 deaths.

Good Idea That Didn’t Quite Work

Uzbek authorities did establish quarantine areas in every province, but there were problems with them from the very beginning.

Less than two weeks after the announcement of the first case of the coronavirus in Uzbekistan, there were already more than 28,000 people in quarantine centers.

Many such places crammed beds into a limited number of rooms and often four, six, or even more people were sleeping in the same room. Some areas were actually cargo containers arranged in rows that resembled refugee camps. Hastily arranged dining facilities were often spaces accommodating dozens of people at one time.

Kyrgyzstan’s newly appointed health minister, Sabirzhan Abdikarimov, said on April 3 that such quarantine centers in his country created conditions for spreading the virus.

No Uzbek official has said such a thing, but on July 20, Ozodlik reported that of 566 cases of the coronavirus registered in the previous 24 hours, 110 were in quarantine centers. On July 15, Ozodlik reported that of 494 new cases registered in the previous 24 hours, 303 were in quarantine areas.

There have also been reports of ill treatment and some suicides in these quarantine areas.

Small wonder there have been riots in some of the centers, such as the one at the Urtasarai quarantine center in Tashkent Province on July 9. Some people there complained they had been waiting nearly a month to be cleared to leave and go home, even though the standard observation period is 14 days.

No Hospital Space, No Medicine

If it was heavily burdened before, the health-care system now appears to be severely overloaded.

Dilorom Abduvahabov is a doctor who was assigned to ambulance duty. He has sent messages to authorities to tell them he and his co-workers do not have the proper protective clothing for their work, but he told Ozodlik his appeals have gone unanswered.

People complain that when they call for an ambulance they are often advised to call a different number. Many consider it useless to even try to call for an ambulance.

For those fortunate few who do manage to have an ambulance come to their home, there is often no room at any hospitals.

And not only have some of the cash bonuses promised to medical workers been slow in coming, in some cases their regular wages have not been paid on time.

Additionally, Ozodlik reported doctors, nurses, and workers at quarantine centers were being forced to sign a waiver promising not to make any claims against the government if they contract the coronavirus.

A Eurasianet report from July 24 noted shortages of medicine and ambulance services so overwhelmed that there is almost no possibility of help in a regular emergency.

Ozodlik has reported that people have bought almost all of the medicine available -- even that which does nothing to help coughs, fever, or breathing problems -- and that some are turning to the black market to buy medicine of unknown origin and dubious quality.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has criticized various government officials, including the health minister, for their failures to control the spread of the virus, and all 11 district chiefs of Tashkent had to appear on television and apologize for failing their constituents in the fight against the coronavirus.

Holishon Jalolova worked in the Disease Control and Prevention Department for 20 years. She died of COVID-19 earlier this month.
Holishon Jalolova worked in the Disease Control and Prevention Department for 20 years. She died of COVID-19 earlier this month.

The coronavirus has also killed many health-care workers, including Holishon Jalolova, who according to her family had been working with a fever because of the crush of people with the coronavirus at the hospital in Tashkent's Yakkasaray district.

Jalolova's daughter, Mukambar Umarova, 48, said her mother worked in the Disease Control and Prevention Department for 20 years but that she herself had been tested too late for COVID-19 and shouldn't have been working while sick. Umarova added that her mother had not been given the extra wages and added benefits that had been promised to health workers by the government.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report
Turkmen women wear protective face masks as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 in Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan's hospitals are filled to capacity with more patients on the way. But Ashgabat says none of this has anything to do with the coronavirus.

Turkmenistan's government claims it has successfully prevented anyone in the country from being infected with the coronavirus that is raging around the world.

But that is not what a growing number of people inside the country say.

Here's a look at what "success" in fighting the spread of the coronavirus looks like inside Turkmenistan:

"In the intensive care unit [of a hospital in Ashgabat] 50 people die on average every day."

"On [July 19], doctors warned there were no more plastic [body] bags…. Bodies are [since] wrapped in chlorine-soaked cloth."

That is what two people in Ashgabat told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, about the situation in different hospitals in the Turkmen capital.

The first person was a patient at an Ashgabat hospital who was recently discharged but observed what was happening during his/her stay.

"They bring people who are ill with COVID-19 there," the person said. "People are constantly arriving. The hospital is full of patients [and] all are diagnosed with pneumonia."

The person continued, saying there are not enough vehicles to take all the bodies to the morgue.

The comment about the insufficient number of body bags was reported by an RFE/RL correspondent in Ashgabat.

The reporter added that when there were body bags, authorities handed over bodies to relatives with a warning not to open the bag and to leave the body in the bag for burial.

Another Ashgabat correspondent said they knew at least 20 people who were in hospitals in the capital who had coronavirus symptoms.

'Full Of Patients'

One RFE/RL correspondent in Ashgabat said there were too many patients for hospitals to handle and one of the local children's hospitals had started taking patients with COVID-19 symptoms, although officially these are patients with signs of pneumonia.

An Azatlyk correspondent in the eastern city of Turkmenabat, described a similar situation.

"The general hospital is full of patients with the coronavirus," the reporter said. "Earlier it was only one wing that was a quarantined area, but now the whole clinic is closed off. There are about 700 beds and all of them are occupied, there is nowhere to send new patients."

Turkmenabat is the capital of Lebap Province and the independent website Turkmen.news reported on July 20 that the head of the province's Faryab district died recently of pneumonia.

Hasan Metkuliev was 55 years old and, as of July 14, was telling people he was in good health. But Metkuliev died four days later and his family received his body wrapped in a plastic body bag for immediate burial.

Azatlyk confirmed Metkuliev's death, and that his wife and deputy district chief had also been infected and were in the hospital.

Yagshygeldy Kakaev, who for many years oversaw Turkmenistan's key oil and gas sector and was one of the few trusted officials to regularly represent the country abroad, reportedly died of pneumonia on July 8.

Turkish diplomat Kemal Uchkun died in an Ashgabat hospital, officially of heart failure, but when he entered the hospital he was treated for pneumonia and some believe he actually died from COVID-19.

And most recently, there is unconfirmed information that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's brother-in-law, Annanazar Rejepov, has died of pneumonia and that his wife, Durdynabat, is seriously ill.

Turkmen authorities managed to guide a team from the World Health Organization (WHO) to sites where there was allegedly no evidence of the coronavirus in early July.

The fact that the visit was delayed by more than two months as Turkmen officials dragged out the process of issuing permission for the WHO mission to come did not escape the attention of those watching Turkmenistan, many of whom wondered if the government was using the time to cleanse sites the WHO team would visit.

At a press conference on July 15, WHO mission chief Catherine Smallwood made reference in her remarks to "reports of increased cases of acute respiratory disease or pneumonia of unknown cause."

The head of Turkmenistan's Department for the Surveillance of Dangerous Diseases, Dr. Gurbangul Ovliyagulova, also spoke at the press briefing and denied there was any pneumonia of unknown cause in Turkmenistan.

Ample Evidence

There is already ample evidence that the coronavirus is in Turkmenistan.

The increasing number of people, including medical personnel, who are willing to speak to foreign media outlets under condition of anonymity, of course, about the strange and sudden number of illnesses in the country shows the frustration within the population with the government's statements that there is no health crisis.

The most baffling thing about the government's repeated denials about the coronavirus being in the country is what exactly is the point of denying it?

According to Worldometers.info, the coronavirus is affecting 213 countries and territories around the world.

There is no shame in admitting the virus is also in your country. Almost every country has done so, including all of Turkmenistan's neighbors (even a long-reluctant Tajikistan).

There is no prize that comes with a claim of being coronavirus-free.

But there are huge losses, chiefly for the people in a country where the government has failed to take adequate measures to stem the spread of the virus and now finds its medical facilities overloaded with patients and ill-prepared in terms of medicine, equipment, and medical personnel to deal with a massive health crisis.

Azatlyk correspondents report that rumors about the virus are everywhere, fueling panic among the public.

And because the Turkmen government denies there is a problem, it receives very little of the outside financial and material help the country desperately needs.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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