“When I was driving from one hospital to another with my sister in the car -- who was struggling to breathe -- I felt like the loneliest person in the world,” said Taalaybek Shaiymbekov about his 26-year-old sister, Kunduz.
After being rejected by numerous hospitals in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, for several days, Kunduz was finally given a bed at the National Infectious Diseases Center on June 28.
But it was too late. Doctors were unable to save the young woman’s life.
Shaiymbekov told RFE/RL that Kunduz died from what Kyrgyz doctors diagnosed as pneumonia just five days after falling ill in late June.
Kunduz took a test for the coronavirus but died before the results came back.
“I’m angry with the government, which said it was ready to deal with [coronavirus] outbreak. I didn’t see any of that readiness,” Shaiymbekov said.
Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian nation of some 6.5 million, is facing a severe shortage of medical professionals, hospital beds, drugs, and equipment as coronavirus infections have shot up in recent weeks. The country lifted a state of emergency in May.
The Health Ministry reported 511 new infections on July 10, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 9,358 since Kyrgyzstan recorded its first case in March. The official death toll from COVID-19 stands at 122.
Real figures of infections and deaths are believed to be much higher, but the country’s testing capability is severely limited.
The huge increase in deaths by pneumonia is also seen as masking the country's true mortality rate from COVID-19.
In its daily coronavirus update, the Health Ministry reports COVID-19 and pneumonia fatalities separately. At least 268 people have died from pneumonia in Kyrgyzstan since March.
Exhausted Medics, Overcrowded Hospitals
Local journalist Alena Khomenko shared a photo of what she described as frontline medical workers sleeping in an overcrowded room after their shifts at the Issyk-Kul provincial hospital in Kyrgyzstan’s north.
The photo, posted on July 7, shows three single beds occupied by two people each.
“There are eight to 10 people in each room…. Our doctors spend days and nights on duty, wearing uncomfortable clothes and masks. Now they don’t even have a normal place to get some rest,” the journalist wrote.
Hospital Director Toktobai Maanaev said “it was just a joke” and that the doctors who treat COVID-19 patients there “are not experiencing a lack of space.”
But patients, relatives, activists, and others say that many medical facilities in Issyk-Kul and elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan are running out of beds both for patients and staff.
Azamat Aitbaev, a member of the Karakol city council in Issyk Kul Province, tweeted that “all hospitals in Karakol are full and aren’t taking new patients.”
“They have written a list of medicine and are telling the patients to treat themselves at home,” she wrote. “I spoke with doctors and they said there is also a shortage of medics. They rest two or three hours and are back on their feet again.”
“The situation is the same in hospitals in the [nearby town of] Balykchy,” tweeted local activist Dinara Oshurakhunova. “Medics are getting ill, not enough medicine, not enough protective gear.”
An Issyk-Kul city resident told RFE/RL that her father died recently from COVID-19-like symptoms at the provincial hospital.
“My father told me over the phone that there was only one ventilator at the internal diseases department. It wasn’t enough for so many patients who needed oxygen. And that ventilator didn’t work properly,” said the woman, who asked not to be named.
“Because of the shortage of beds, sometimes the hospital would place both male and female patients in the same room,” she said on July 7.
In the southwestern province of Jalal-Abad, health officials say that all intensive-care beds at the main regional hospital are currently occupied.
In southern Osh Province, several doctors at the Kurshab village hospital recorded a video message to say medics are in a dire need of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medication:
President Sooronbai Jeenbekov ordered his government to take urgent measures to provide medics as well as the entire health system with wide-ranging support and supplies in the fight against the coronavirus.
Regional health officials are creating new, makeshift treatment facilities, some of them by renting buildings from sanatoriums and recreational centers, including sports arenas and even the former U.S. military base, Ganci, outside of Bishkek.
Some politicians and doctors are urging ordinary people to take the risk of the coronavirus seriously and follow rules -- such as wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing -- to protect themselves and others from the virus.
The majority of the coronavirus cases so far have been recorded in Bishkek, followed by the nearby Chui Province.
The country, however, is gearing up for a possible rise of infections in other regions, where the rates still remain relatively low.
“We try to contain the virus, but we must be prepared for the situation to get worse,” Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov warned in early July as the country began to see new cases go beyond the record of 500 for a single day.
Despite the growing infections in the country and the overload on hospitals, staff, and medical equipment, the government has said in recent days that it’s not considering a new nationwide lockdown.
Boronov said a strict lockdown -- as the country imposed previously for several weeks -- would severely hurt the economy of Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest in Central Asia.
“Reimposing restrictions that bring to a halt most sectors of the economy would have a negative impact on these sectors and the lives of our citizens,” Boronov said on July 6.
But some businesses in Bishkek have decided to close their doors and shutter operations, citing the health risks.
The capital’s huge Asia Mall and the Technopark trade center, as well as the RIOM car market, announced on July 8 they were closing until the situation improves.
The Aychurek shopping center said it was closing temporarily starting on July 9, while the Dordoi Plaza trade center announced the closure of business from July 8-19.
As of July 10, southern Batken Province will ban public transport vehicles and the private taxi services that connect the remote Batken region to other parts of the country.
In Osh, religious authorities have recommended suspending Friday Prayers in mosques.