NUR-SULTAN -- Governments in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are adding pneumonia cases most likely caused by the coronavirus to their overall pandemic totals even though they were undetected at the time.
The move, which will cause a jump in virus-related deaths, comes as many Central Asian nations struggle to curb the spread of the virus after easing restrictions.
Kazakh Health Minister Aleksei Tsoi said on July 17 that the number of people killed in Kazakhstan by pneumonia so far in 2020 was 3,327, out of a total of 234,000 cases in the Central Asian nation.
Tsoi added that in the same period last year, the number of people killed by pneumonia was 1,896.
"From the last part of June, the number of cases of viral pneumonia from unknown causes has increased in Kazakhstan," Tsoi said, noting that year-on-year, the number of cases was up by 1.75 times.
A comparison of released Health Ministry data shows that for so far in July only 1,555 people died of pneumonia in Kazakhstan.
Tsoi also said that as of August 1, the country will start counting COVID-19 victims and people who died of pneumonia from unknown causes together as coronavirus victims.
Tsoi's statement came after Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev called on the government "to clearly set its sights" on the situation around the rising number of deadly pneumonia patients who had tested negative for the coronavirus.
As of July 17, the number of coronavirus cases in Kazakhstan was reported at 65,188, including 396 deaths.
In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, health authorities said on July 16 that the sharply rising number of pneumonia victims in the country will be also counted and given along with the COVID-19 death toll.
The Health Ministry said on July 17 that the number of coronavirus cases in the country reached 13,101, of whom 6,096 patients recovered and 173 people died.
The number of individuals hospitalized with acute pneumonia but who tested negative for the coronavirus is 10,682, of whom 3,314 people recovered and 77 died.
In Uzbekistan, several medical workers told RFE/RL that all medical personnel involved in treating COVID-19 patients had been forced to sign consent letters to take full personal responsibility if they contract the virus.
According to the medical workers, the move allows local officials to legally block bonuses health workers treating such patients are eligible for.
"When I returned to work after spending two weeks in self-isolation, they requested I sign such a letter about 10 days ago. They insisted I sign it. The letter basically said 'if I contract the coronavirus at work, I will not file any complaint against anyone.' My neighbor works as a nurse at another hospital and they requested she sign a similar letter," a nurse at a Tashkent hospital, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL on July 16.
An employee at the Sanitary and Epidemiological Safety Center in Tashkent also told RFE/RL that he and his colleagues were forced to sign the consent letters.
Similar claims have been made on social networks by Uzbek medical personnel and COVID-19 patients.
A day earlier, President Shavkat Mirziyoev officially reprimanded he country's health minister and top leaders of Tashkent and the Tashkent region for their "poor" efforts in containing the spread of the coronavirus in the country.
As of late July 16, the number of coronavirus cases in Central Asia's most-populous nation of 32 million was 14,991, including 73 deaths.
In Tajikistan, as of July 16 the number of coronavirus cases was officially reported as 6,741, including 56 deaths.
However, an investigative report by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service last month revealed that the real number of lethal cases of COVID-19 in the country might be several hundreds.
Turkmenistan is the only country in the region that has not officially registered any coronavirus cases, but RFE/RL correspondents have reported that local hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients with pneumonia symptoms, some of whom, including medical personnel, have died.
In some parts of the country, so-called quarantine zones have been established, some industrial facilities are being shut down, RFE/RL correspondents report.
The leader of the World Health Organization' mission, Catherine Smallwood, told a press conference in Ashgabat on July 15 that the mission had concerns about reports of pneumonia in the tightly controlled energy-rich nation.
Smallwood advised the Turkmen government to activate “the critical public health measures in Turkmenistan, as if COVID-19 was circulating.”