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Secretive Turkmenistan Beefs Up Coronavirus Measures Amid Reports Of First Infections

The Choganly hospital near Ashgabat -- ground zero for the coronavirus in Central Asia?
The Choganly hospital near Ashgabat -- ground zero for the coronavirus in Central Asia?

ASHGABAT -- Medical sources in Turkmenistan claim at least two Turkmen have tested positive for the coronavirus at a hospital near the capital, Ashgabat.

An employee at the hospital in Choganly told RFE/RL on March 2 the two patients were being kept under quarantine and in "strict isolation" since being diagnosed with COVID-19 some 10 days ago.

They would be the first officially registered coronavirus infections in Central Asia.

The hospital employee also spoke about the secrecy surrounding the two cases, saying that even the hospital staff -- with a few exceptions -- had not been told about them.

He said it was still unknown if the patients had recently been abroad or contracted the virus in Turkmenistan.

Another hospital worker at the Choganly facility told RFE/RL separately that "several" coronavirus patients with a confirmed diagnosis were being treated at the hospital. He added there had been no fatalities linked to the coronavirus infections in Choganly.

Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions by government officials in the secretive, authoritarian state, where criticism of the state is not tolerated.

Nothing To See Here

Contacted by RFE/RL on March 3, an official at the state-run Center for Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases in Ashgabat vehemently denied the reports of patients being infected with the coronavirus in Turkmenistan.

"You've been given wrong information. There are no coronavirus cases here," said the official, who refused to give her name. She said there were some patients under quarantine at the center but insisted they were not coronavirus cases.

Coronavirus remains a taboo topic in Turkmenistan, where authorities and state media haven't mentioned it publicly since the worldwide crisis, which has killed more than 3,200 people, began in December.

But Turkmen authorities have been taking nationwide measures apparently aimed at preventing the spread of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.

Schools and other public buildings around the country are being regularly disinfected with chlorine, RFE/RL correspondents report from various Turkmen provinces.

On the morning of March 3, employees at many state agencies in Ashgabat had an unknown ointment put on their noses before entering their workplaces, RFE/RL correspondents say.

In a rare occurrence in Turkmenistan, flyers were distributed to inform people about how to protect themselves against various respiratory diseases -- but there is no mention of the coronavirus on the flyers.

Meanwhile, security at border crossings has been tightened in recent weeks as the government has urged people not to travel abroad in order to "further protect and strengthen the sanitary-epidemiological well-being of the country."

Most land borders -- particularly those with hard-hit Iran -- have been closed, along with a seaport, and airline passengers are being inspected at all airports.

The urgent measures being taken by Turkmen officials without explanation have caused concern among the public. "People know about this [virus], so people who are afraid of being isolated try to treat themselves on their own when they are sick and people are afraid to see doctors," an RFE/RL correspondent said.

Weddings and other public events in the capital are being canceled and gyms, swimming pools, and other sports facilities have been closed.

Some 470 Turkmen -- including students and businessmen who returned from China -- were taken directly from airports to a quarantine zone in Lebap Province.

On March 4, RFE/RL correspondents in Ashgabat said Turkmen traveling to Europe and Turkey were being disembarked en masse and that flights to Belarus would soon be banned.

Elsewhere In Central Asia...

In contrast to Turkmenistan, neighboring states in the region have openly spoken about their measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

The Kazakh government announced on March 4 that it had closed the Caspian Sea ports of Aqtau and Quryq to ships carrying passengers from Iran and Azerbaijan, in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

Tajikistan asked its citizens on March 4 to avoid attending mosques for Friday Prayers as a precaution, although there was no blanket ban on mosque attendance, according to the State Committee on Religious Affairs.

Media outlets in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan provide extensive coverage of the worldwide coronavirus crisis and information about methods to prevent the spread of the virus.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

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