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Surge In COVID-19 Cases Forces Central Asian Countries To Reverse Reopenings

A security guard in a shopping center in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, measures the temperature of visitors.
A security guard in a shopping center in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, measures the temperature of visitors.

Only weeks after emerging from lengthy lockdowns that battered their fragile economies, an upsurge in coronavirus infections in Central Asia has forced officials to reimpose restrictions that will close businesses and leave people jobless.

But work is always plentiful during pandemics for health-care workers and gravediggers.

“Normally in our cemetery about five bodies are buried every month,” Turganbek Otebaev, a cemetery worker on the outskirts of the northwestern Kazakh city of Aqtobe, told RFE/RL on June 25. “But in the past two to three days, six or seven bodies are being brought for burial every day.”

In Uzbekistan’s Bukhoro region, the government has ordered “limits” be put on public transport and the closure of some bazaars as of July 1 “due to an increase in the number of the infections,” state media reported.

All shopping centers and markets across Uzbekistan will be closed during the weekends for extensive disinfection efforts, the state’s coronavirus task force announced on June 30.

Health workers are seen at a mobile-testing station for the coronavirus in Almaty.
Health workers are seen at a mobile-testing station for the coronavirus in Almaty.

Central Asia’s most populous nation of 32 million, Uzbekistan recorded at least 230 new cases each day recently, although the real number of infections remains unknown due to a severe lack of testing and accusations that officials are underreporting cases.

In Kazakhstan, a two-week lockdown was announced on July 1, scheduled to begin on July 5. The new quarantine measures were announced after the country experienced a startling spike in COVID-19 cases in the past three weeks.

President Qasym-Jomart Toqaev had ordered officials to introduce “measures similar to the strict quarantine” Kazakhstan had imposed from March 16 to May 11.

The number of confirmed infections cases rose to 41,065 on July 1, from about 5,000 in mid-May when Kazakhstan -- the largest economy in Central Asia -- lifted its nationwide lockdown.

Some 1,604 people had tested positive for the virus over the previous 24 hours, a government website reported on July 1.

New cases are also soaring in Kyrgyzstan, where the government says the crisis has put tremendous pressure on the country’s struggling health system.

Second Wave Or Recharged First Wave?

Officials in Kazakhstan began sounding alarms about the surge in new cases in mid-June, when the government planned to gradually reopen large shopping centers, cinemas, and theaters.

Instead, it has been forced to tighten restrictions on businesses once again.

In Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, all bazaars and shops have had their opening hours reduced since June 15.

Similar restrictions were introduced for restaurants, grocery stores, and markets in the Qarangandy, Mangistau, North Kazakhstan, South Kazakhstan, Turkestan, and West Kazakhstan provinces.

Many Kazakh hospitals have been running out of beds because of the growing number of people being admitted with COVID-19 symptoms.

A health worker takes a swab from a woman at a mobile-testing station for the coronavirus in Almaty. Many Kazakh hospitals are running out of beds because of the growing number of people being admitted with COVID-19 symptoms.
A health worker takes a swab from a woman at a mobile-testing station for the coronavirus in Almaty. Many Kazakh hospitals are running out of beds because of the growing number of people being admitted with COVID-19 symptoms.

The country has also seen an unprecedented rise in severe pneumonia cases, many of them resulting in death. Pneumonia is often triggered by patients with COVID-19.

On June 30, Health Minister Aleksei Tsoi said 2,500 new pneumonia cases were being recorded every day.

In Kyrgyzstan, Emergency Medicine Center head Iskender Shayakhmatov said the facility is getting a high volume of calls from Bishkek residents complaining of pneumonia-like symptoms. Shayakhanov said it is highly unusual for the summer season.

Pneumonia infections have also been on the rise in Tajikistan, although health officials in almost every Central Asian country say patients’ tests for the coronavirus are often coming back negative.

Dubious Statistics

The true coronavirus statistics are hard to determine in Central Asia, where critics accuse officials in most of the countries of underreporting the cases.

With the exception of Kazakhstan, testing rates remain extremely low across the region, where medical experts also question the reliability of testing kits.

In Tajikistan, doctors in provincial hospitals say that they have no access to coronavirus tests and have to send samples to the capital, Dushanbe.

Two hospital directors told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service that, because of the lack of tests, they put pneumonia as the cause of death for all patients who die from obvious COVID-19 symptoms.

Tajikistan reported 5,954 infections as of June 30, while the number of deaths remained unchanged at 52 for several days.

But an investigative report by RFE/RL showed that officials figures are significantly lower than estimates by local activists and medics.

A website set up by some activists puts the number of coronavirus deaths at 437 as of June 14, citing information provided by relatives, health authorities, local officials, or social media reports. RFE/RL had verified more than 150 of those deaths from the coronavirus.

Tajik authorities claimed there were no coronavirus cases in the country until April 30. Before then, officials had harassed journalists who questioned a rise in the suspicious “pneumonia-like” cases.

Turkmenistan, the most secretive and repressive country in Central Asia, hasn’t reported a single coronavirus infection.

But various medical sources have told RFE/RL that COVID-19 cases have been recorded in almost all of the regions in Turkmenistan, despite the government’s denial.

Having first refused to allow a World Health Organization (WHO) delegation from visiting the country, Ashgabat relented last week and said WHO officials could come. But the visit has yet to take place.

Several medics are said to be among those who contracted the coronavirus in Turkmenistan.

Two doctors died from COVID-19 at the Choganly infectious diseases hospital on the outskirts of Ashgabat, while several other medics became infected with the virus at different medical facilities in the provinces, the sources told RFE/RL.

Kazakh President Toqaev says his government has “nothing to hide from the international community” and wants to show the “real situation” in the country. He said on June 29 that Kazakhstan has the capacity to conduct some 28,000 tests a day.

On July 1, Kazakhstan’s official website for coronavirus statistics ended its practice of excluding asymptomatic cases from the total tally.

Live Map: The Spread Of The Coronavirus

Updated constantly with the latest figures

Until now, the government’s daily report of new cases didn’t include those cases, a method that critics call a “manipulation” of the statistics.

As an example, on June 30 the government's coronavirus office reported 492 new coronavirus infections in the previous 24 hours. But that figure didn’t include 1,003 people who also tested positive for the coronavirus on the same day yet showed no symptoms. The website reported asymptomatic cases in a separate category.

Dr. Bakhyt Tumenova, the head of the Aman-Saulyk public organization, said such methods give a distorted and misleading picture of the situation.

“Asymptomatic people are as infectious as those who have clinical manifestations,” she told RFE/RL.

“Also, during the pandemic, when a patient dies from an underlying health condition that was worsened by the coronavirus, the leading cause of death should be recorded as COVID-19,” Tumenova said.

Central Asian countries have, up to now, reported relatively low coronavirus-related fatality rates, as the deaths of patients with comorbidities are generally not counted as COVID-19 deaths, like they are in most Western countries.

What’s Next?

Toqaev has instructed local governors to provide key resources for the health-care system during the new lockdown starting on July 5.

He also ordered a 50 percent increase in the number of beds in infectious disease hospitals by the end of July, “bearing in mind the possibility of the onset of a second wave of the pandemic.”

The Kazakh government is set to hold a meeting on July 10 to discuss the impact of the crisis on the economy, including measures to maintain jobs and economic activity.

In April, the energy-rich country pledged some $13.5 billion to support its citizens and small businesses during the pandemic.

Other Central Asian countries have yet to come up with concrete action plans to effectively handle the crisis and support their populations, many of whom were desperately poor before the pandemic struck earlier this year.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have introduced a small rise in the wages of health workers and handed out some humanitarian aid to low-income households.

“Pandemic or no pandemic, I’ve never felt protected by my government,” said Ghanijon, a Tajik migrant worker in Russia’s Tyumen region. “My situation depends on the situation in Russia. It always did.”

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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.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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