Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Kazakh government to extend and bolster economic relief for those negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent hundreds of thousands of people from facing poverty.
The rights watchdog said in a report on August 18 that the pandemic had elevated inequalities in Central Asia's wealthiest country, underscoring Kazakhstan’s weak social-protection system.
Kazakhstan stands out as the only country in Central Asia to provide cash transfers to individuals during the pandemic.
But with many people across Kazakhstan facing poverty even before the pandemic, the government needs to do more, HRW said.
Soon after reporting the first COVID-19 cases in Kazakhstan in March, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev announced that the government was allocating about $10 billion toward improving access to health care, cash transfers for people who lost income, and protecting businesses from the economic fallout.
The aid package totaled almost 7 percent of Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product.
The authorities also handed out food packages to low-income families and people with disabilities and reimbursed utility expenses for April and May in the amount of about $36 for socially vulnerable groups.
Employees who lost jobs because of the pandemic are eligible to apply for unemployment assistance for up to six months. The assistance provides a maximum of 40 percent of their former salaries.
After that, they can apply for Targeted Social Assistance, a poverty-targeting social-protection program. However, HRW noted that some past studies identified the program as insufficient to guarantee an adequate standard of living and too low to pay for food, shelter, and water.
Though the measures provide much-needed support for people, the relief is lower than the monthly living wage needed to cover basic expenses in higher-cost cities such as Almaty or Nur-Sultan.
Meanwhile, three-month loan deferrals -- a measure introduced to ease people's financial burdens -- expired in June.
The government extended economic assistance -- the monthly payment of about $100 -- for people who lost income, but it remains unclear if the payment will be renewed beyond August 16 as the government began easing lockdown measures from August 17.
Despite Kazakhstan's vast natural resources, a high portion of its population was at risk of poverty even before the pandemic.
One study from October 2018 found that a quarter of Kazakhstan's population of more than 18 million is chronically poor, and more are at risk of falling into poverty.
The situation is expected to deteriorate as oil revenues dwindle due to the pandemic.
The World Bank estimates that Kazakhstan's "poverty rate may rise in 2020 from a projected 8.3 to 12.7 percent," with an additional 800,000 people experiencing poverty.
But HRW said that the government can use its accumulated fiscal buffers, continuing foreign direct investments, and international assistance to protect the economically vulnerable,
In June, the Asian Development Bank approved a $1 billion assistance package to Kazakhstan to contain the negative impact of the pandemic.
HRW called on the government to increase economic relief measures and ensure that everyone living in Kazakhstan can apply for assistance of various kinds to ensure an adequate standard of living.
"There could be dire consequences unless the government urgently extends and expands financial assistance during the quarantine and beyond," said Lena Simet, senior poverty and inequality researcher at HRW.
As of August 18, Kazakhstan has reported 103,300 coronavirus infection cases, including 1,269 fatalities.