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As Coronavirus Infections Go From Zero To Hundreds In Days, Tajikistan's Hospitals Can't Keep Up

A source close to the hospital in the northern city of Khujand said the hospital's chief resigned after he was ordered to discharge sick patients.

After proclaiming for months that it was one of the few countries on Earth without a single case of the coronavirus, Tajikistan is now reeling from the deadly virus as infected patients fill hospitals and medics complain of chronic equipment shortages.

In the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, people complain that some hospitals no longer accept patients infected with the coronavirus because they have run out of beds.

In a video obtained by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, four ambulances are shown parked outside the Varzob Tourism Complex -- which has been turned into a makeshift hospital as the deadly virus rages across the country.

"There are sick people inside the vehicles," says a woman, a relative of one of the patients. She and other relatives say they were turned away from city hospitals and sent to the Varzob facility in suburban Dushanbe.

"This 'facility' also isn't admitting [patients]. You could die here and nobody would care," the unidentified woman says.

Even ambulances are running out in Tajikistan.
Even ambulances are running out in Tajikistan.

"State TV boasts that we have all the necessary capacity [to handle the coronavirus]," she adds. "But in reality they don't know where to put sick people."

Another video shared by a prominent local activist shows a woman begging doctors at the massive Shifobakh National Medical Complex in Dushanbe to find a bed for her mother. "Please, find my mom a bed, even if it's in the corridor," the woman pleads with doctors in hazmat suits at the facility's Building No. 6.

Similar complaints are being shared by others in Dushanbe and elsewhere, with many sharing videos and posting comments on social media.

Weeks Of Denial

The chaotic situation comes as Tajikistan finally admitted having recorded 15 coronavirus infections on April 30, after it claimed for weeks the country was virus-free.

That announcement was made ahead of a visit by experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) to assess the coronavirus situation in the impoverished Central Asian country of about 9 million.

Throughout the month of April, independent media and social-media users reported numerous fatal cases of "pneumonia" in Tajikistan, asking authorities for an explanation.

Among the dead were several doctors and other hospital workers.

A worker sprays disinfectant in Khujand on April 28.
A worker sprays disinfectant in Khujand on April 28.

Officials continued to deny registering any coronavirus infections and instead attacked journalists, accusing them of unnecessarily sowing panic among the people.

The comments were not unusual from the regime of longtime autocratic ruler Emomali Rahmon, which has for many years been criticized by international rights groups for its suppression of dissent and the stifling of free speech.

As of May 6, Tajikistan reported 379 coronavirus infections, including eight deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Many Tajiks believe the real figures to be far higher than those claimed by the government.

Doctors' Dilemma

The situation became so bad that Rahmon said on May 5 that Health Minister Nasim Olimzoda had been reassigned to another job and replaced by Jamoliddin Abdullozoda.

Meanwhile, independent media outlets and social-media users reported that some hospitals were being ordered by the authorities to send home some of their COVID-19 patients even if they had a high fever.

A source close to the Sughd Regional Hospital in the northern city of Khujand said the recent resignation of hospital chief Sobirjon Sobirov was connected to the alleged order to discharge sick patients.

The source told RFE/RL on May 4 that the authorities ordered Sobirov to reduce the number of COVID-19 patients in his hospital before the visit by the WHO delegation.

"But Sobirov said that as a doctor he couldn't send home sick patients and offered his resignation instead," the source said on condition of anonymity.

Medical officials haven't publicly commented on Sobirov's May 2 resignation.

One Khujand resident told RFE/RL that several people from his neighborhood were discharged from the hospital in recent days despite still being ill. "They still have fevers. Ambulances frequently come to check on them [at home]," the resident said on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, hospital workers from several different regions spoke about the severe shortage of personal-protection equipment (PPE) for medics and other supplies.

In the southern district of Muminobod, there is only one ventilator at the main hospital for a region of more than 72,000 inhabitants, doctors say.

"We've got gloves and face masks, but we have only eight special gowns that are very old and completely useless," says Rajabali Haidarov, the head of the Muminobod Infectious Diseases Hospital.

A similar situation was reported from the southwestern district of Vakhsh, home to some 180,000 people.

"We have only two ventilators. We don't have PPE for medics and have asked the Health Ministry to provide them for us," said a Vakhsh doctor who didn't want to give his name for fear of official reprisals.

In the remote district of Ishkhoshim, in southeast Tajikistan, one local resident said that "our hospitals don't even have rubbing alcohol."

Dushanbe's hospitals no longer have space for more patients.
Dushanbe's hospitals no longer have space for more patients.

Disappointed With The State

The Health Ministry recently said there were more than 500 ventilators in the country's medical facilities and that it was planning to purchase 100 more, as well as other medical supplies to help fight the coronavirus.

Tajikistan has received cash and medical supplies from several international organizations and foreign countries in recent weeks that was meant to combat the spread of the virus.

The foreign aid includes $189.5 million allocated by the International Monetary Fund, 48 million euros ($53 million) from the European Union, and $11.3 million from the World Bank.

The Tajik government's initial denial of having any coronavirus infections amid the growing number of suspicious pneumonia deaths has further eroded people's trust in the authorities, many Tajiks say.

"All the signs were out there: people were dying, doctors were dying, but I still believed that maybe, just maybe, the government was telling the truth and that Tajikistan really didn't have coronavirus," says Shohin, who lives in the southern Kulob district.

"The government told us not to believe media rumors [that the disease was in Tajikistan]," he said. "So we didn't take any precautions and the virus spread. I'm beyond disappointed. We were let down badly."

"Many people, including me, believed that we just had so many cases of pneumonia,” Dushanbe resident Anahita tweeted on April 30, just minutes after the government acknowledged the existence of the coronavirus infections.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service.
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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 impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Tajik Service

    RFE/RL’s Tajik Service is a trusted source of local news, attracting audiences with compelling reporting on issues not otherwise covered by Tajikistan’s state-run media.