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Despite Zero Reported Cases, Coronavirus On Everyone's Mind In Tajikistan

With many unable to leave for Russia to work, groups of men are gathering in the so-called labor market in Dushanbe, waiting for customers to hire them for temporary jobs.

Schools have reopened after the spring holidays and it seems to be business as usual in crowded bazaars and streets in Tajikistan, where authorities haven't reported a single coronavirus infection.

Many Tajiks, however, say the pandemic virus is in the back of everybody's mind and increasingly affecting people's lives.

Face masks have become a familiar sight even in remote villages, although there has been no official order or requirement for people to cover their mouths and noses.

Panic buying that sent food prices skyrocketing overnight in early March has since subsided, after authorities sought to reassure people it has enough supplies to feed everyone in the country of some 9 million people.

Mamlakat, a housewife in the northern city of Khujand, said she is trying to stock up on flour, rice, cooking oil, and other nonperishables. "You can't be certain of anything anymore."

The State Anti-Monopoly Committee and Prosecutor-General's Office set up a task force last month to assess the situation in bazaars and stop private traders from artificially raising prices amid the coronavirus crisis.

But some price hikes seem to be inevitable.

Bazaars, grocery stores, and roadside stalls were once loaded with relatively cheaper eggs, meat, candies, and other products from Uzbekistan and Iran. But with the border with Uzbekistan closed and greatly diminished trade with Iran -- where the coronavirus has struck particularly hard -- there are naturally fewer such goods in stores or more expensive substitutes on shelves.

Affordable clothes and shoes were being exported from neighboring China and Kyrgyzstan, but those borders are also mainly shut down. Goods from Turkey have fallen victim to restricted international air traffic.

Kazakhstan, a major exporter of flour and wheat to Tajikistan, announced on March 30 that it was temporarily limiting the exports to prioritize them for domestic use.

Migrant Workers

Many Tajik households' main concern is the situation in Russia, which hosts hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from the poor Central Asian nation, where unemployment is widespread.

April is normally the prime month for the migrants to leave for Russia, but now they are stuck at home as the savings from the last year have dwindled.

Many migrants express the hope that Russia will not extend its border closure beyond April 30.

Meanwhile, desperate for any income to put food on the table, groups of men are gathering in the so-called workers' market in Dushanbe's Sultoni Kabir bazaar, waiting for customers to hire them for temporary jobs.

Many men can end up waiting for hours at the Dushanbe labor market, hoping for an offer of temporary work.
Many men can end up waiting for hours at the Dushanbe labor market, hoping for an offer of temporary work.

Murod Sadriddinov, 52, says he arrives in the market at 6 a.m. and waits until late evening every day to get offered a job. Sadriddinov told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that he makes about $6 a day if he's lucky to get chosen to work.

"We want the government to find us a solution, to give us jobs in some factories, some workplaces," said Samandar Sherov, one of the men waiting for random jobs at the bazaar on March 31.

There are reportedly around 20 such labor markets across the country.

'Serious' Social Crisis

Leading economy expert Hojimuhammad Umarov warns that, if the government doesn't take measures to create jobs, the country could face a "serious" social crisis.

"The government must activate factories, invest in creating jobs, and cooperate with the private sector," Umarov told RFE/RL, adding that authorities should act fast.

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No stimulus package has been mentioned and no potential alternatives have been promised by authorities for families facing an uncertain future due to the Russian border closure.

Tajikistan was widely criticized for organizing large parades, concerts, and sporting events to celebrate Norouz, the Persian New Year, in March, ignoring World Health Organization (WHO) warnings about large social gatherings.

Even the country's Super Cup soccer final between champions Istiklol and Khujand will be played on April 4 -- despite virtually every soccer league around the world having postponed its season. Curiously, officials have decided the game will be played without fans.​

Thousands In Quarantine

The Tajik Health Ministry insists that, as of April 2, there has not been one confirmed case of the coronavirus infection in the country.

The ministry said that 6,272 people were taken under a mandatory two-week quarantine after arriving in Tajikistan from abroad between February 1 and April 2.

It added that, as of April 2, there were 3,913 people still in quarantine and none of those released had the coronavirus.

Galina Perfilyeva, the head of the WHO office in Dushanbe, said on April 1 that Tajikistan had conducted more than 700 tests and that all had come back negative.

She added that the samples were also sent to laboratories in Britain and Russia to rule out any possible errors being made by local test labs.

A woman wears a face mask made from traditional Tajik fabric by local designer Nafisa Imronova in response to soaring demand in the Central Asian country for facial coverings.
A woman wears a face mask made from traditional Tajik fabric by local designer Nafisa Imronova in response to soaring demand in the Central Asian country for facial coverings.

Despite the reassurances, some Tajiks are wary of the official account and question if everyone who could possibly have been carrying the virus has been tested.

A doctor at the Dushanbe city hospital rejected suggestions that officials weren't being transparent about the coronavirus in Tajikistan.

"A coronavirus infection is not something that officials would be able to hide from people for long, as it spreads very quickly," the doctor said on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.

But the official proclamations haven't stopped people from being prepared for the coronavirus to arrive, or from trying to make some money.

Local designers in Dushanbe have begun creating face masks from the traditional colorful "adrac" fabric as the demand for masks among people soars in one of the 19 countries on Earth where no cases of coronavirus infection have been reported as of April 2.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.