A district mayor in eastern Turkmenistan has died of the coronavirus, according to sources, as the secretive Central Asian state continues to deny the existence of COVID-19.
The death of Hasan Metkuliyev, the mayor of Farap district in Lebap Province, comes amid reports that hospitals are filling up with sick patients and deaths from suspected coronavirus cases are soaring across the country.
Sources told RFE/RL on July 20 that the district official's wife and deputy had also tested positive for COVID-19 and were being treated at the Turkmenabat Infectious Diseases Hospital.
The source confirmed all district leaders in Lebap Province are currently required to undergo coronavirus testing.
Turkmenistan insists that the country has no cases of coronavirus, despite ample indications the virus is devastating the country.
A witness at a city hospital in the capital, Ashgabat, told RFE/RL that wards were filled with patients and deaths were mounting.
RFE/RL correspondents report that the capital is in a state of panic, not only because of the virus but because the health-care system is in dire condition and rife with corrupt doctors and officials.
Despite ignoring the coronavirus, Turkmen authorities have taken unprecedented health measures recently in an apparent attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.
After prohibiting mask wearing up until July 8, the authorities ordered people to wear face masks in public to protect against "dust." Movement around the country has been restricted and markets and shopping malls have also been closed.
The sudden reversal came as representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO) made a delayed visit to the country in early July to assess the epidemiological situation.
At a July 15 press conference, WHO mission chief Catherine Smallwood said the team had not seen or heard anything that would contradict the government's assertion that coronavirus does not exist in Turkmenistan.
However, Smallwood did recommend that the authorities take "critical public-health measures in Turkmenistan, as if COVID-19 was circulating" in the country.
She also commented on the "reports of increased cases of acute respiratory disease or pneumonia of unknown cause."
The WHO team visit in early July came after RFE/RL had earlier reported Turkmen authorities were trying to hide the extent of the pandemic in the country.