ASHGABAT -- Authorities in Turkmenistan are battling to keep a coronavirus “outbreak” secret as infection numbers rise in the only Central Asian state that continues to insist it is COVID-19-free, medical professionals there have told RFE/RL.
Two doctors died at the Choganly infectious-diseases hospital on the outskirts of the capital last week after allegedly contracting the virus at the same facility, according to health officials in Ashgabat who requested anonymity.
The doctors, who had been under quarantine for several days, died on June 15 and 16, the sources told an RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent.
Along with North Korea and a handful of Pacific island nations, the former Soviet republic is a global outlier that hasn’t acknowledged a single infection.
But how long Ashgabat can maintain that insistence remains to be seen.
Medics who were not authorized to publicly discuss the situation told RFE/RL that the Turkmen outbreak is getting “out of control,” with new cases being recorded in almost all regions.
Several people with suspected COVID-19 symptoms were admitted to the central regional hospital in Lebap Province on June 18 and 19, a provincial health official told RFE/RL.
“All of them tested positive for coronavirus. Among them is a local doctor,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Another source in Lebap told RFE/RL the hospital was put under quarantine after a nurse tested positive for the virus on June 8.
“Hospital employees are now required to get regular tests [for coronavirus], but the authorities don’t inform them about the test results,” the source said.
RFE/RL could not independently verify any of the claims.
Reliable numbers are difficult to obtain in Turkmenistan, which has little or no experience with independent media and freedom of information does not exist.
“Officially, we don’t have a coronavirus case,” a Health Ministry official told RFE/RL on June 18. “We can’t give you any further information.”
Amid growing rumors of the spread of the virus, the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan’s website announced on June 21 that it was temporarily closing the Ashgabat American Center and American Corners in the cities of Mary, Turkmenabat, and Dashoguz.
There was no mention of coronavirus or COVID-19 in the statement, which suggested the measures were intended “to protect the health and safety of American Spaces visitors and employees.”
Medics In Hazmat Suits
The Europe-based independent agency Turkmen.news recently reported that an unspecified number of people, including doctors and nurses, tested positive for the virus at Polyclinic N9 in the Gaudan neighborhood of Ashgabat. The report could not be independently verified and it remains unclear how such an outbreak might have begun.
An RFE/RL correspondent reported on June 19 that several medical facilities in the capital have been placed under quarantine.
They include the Women’s Health Center, which, despite its label, offers medical services to both women and men.
The center was shut down “immediately” after a male patient’s results came back positive for the coronavirus, staff members told RFE/RL.
Accompanied by a relative, they said, the man had come to the clinic for a checkup after feeling unwell.
Both men have reportedly been sent to the Choganly hospital and all staff and recent patients at the Women’s Health Center are being tested for the virus.
In Dashoguz Province, on Turkmenistan’s northern border with Uzbekistan, eight people are suspected of having died of COVID-19 at a quarantine facility in the Saparmurat Turkmenbashi district, sources told an RFE/RL reporter in the area.
The sources did not provide details and RFE/RL was unable to verify that claim.
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In Mary Province, meanwhile, all public-sector workers were ordered to undergo mandatory general medical checkups.
No reason was given, but the employees were told to pay for the examinations from their own pockets.
An RFE/RL correspondent in Mary reported that large queues of people have formed outside medical facilities there as public-sector workers show up en masse for checkups.
Medics in hazmat suits have become a familiar scene in many hospitals in Mary and elsewhere around the country.
In the city of Bayramaly, near Mary’s provincial capital, hospital workers were ordered to pay around $45 each to get one set of personal protective equipment (PPE), an RFE/RL correspondent in Mary reported, citing local medics.
That sum represents about 10 percent of the average monthly salary in Turkmenistan.
Hospital workers in Choganly claim the first coronavirus infections at that facility were recorded in late February when two patients were treated “under strict isolation.”
Some hospital employees had spoken to RFE/RL at the time about the secrecy surrounding the two patients, saying that even hospital staff -- with a few exceptions -- were not being told about them.
The government swiftly launched measures apparently aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
Borders were shut down, flyers were distributed urging people to stay vigilant against unnamed respiratory illnesses, and regular disinfections began of public buildings and bus stops.
However, even the use of the word “coronavirus” remained largely taboo until April 3, when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov finally said it publicly for the first time.
In a speech carried by state television, Berdymukhammedov said that "the coronavirus is raging in the world."
He didn’t say the virus had spread to Turkmenistan, but he spoke of its negative effect on the country's economy.
The government continues to organize crowded public events and celebrations, including one marking the Turkmen Horse Day on April 26 and another on Children’s Day on June 1.
Turkenistan’s post-Soviet neighbors -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- have all acknowledged outbreaks, although Tajikistan’s confirmation of cases came weeks later than the others.
Case numbers are now on the rise in all four countries, with Kazakhstan reporting more than 1,000 new cases a day.