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Tajikistan's Official Coronavirus Stats Don't Reflect Reality, RFE/RL Investigation Finds

Officials admit off the record that because of the lack of testing capabilities they list pneumonia as the cause of death of all patients who die with obvious COVID-19 symptoms.

An investigation by RFE/RL indicates that Tajikistan's official death toll from COVID-19 doesn't reflect the reality and is significantly lower than the data published by local activists.

The Tajik government, which strictly controls free speech and information, has put the death toll from COVID-19 at 52 as of June 26 with the official number of infections at 5,691.

However, an online list regularly updated by local activists puts the number of those who have died from COVID-19 in Tajikistan at 437, as of June 26.

The data provides the name, age, last place of residence, and the date of death for each person on the list who -- according to the activists -- died from COVID-19.

It also shows the source that provided the information, including the deceased's family or friends, a neighbor, hospital, or social-media information. The table also shows if the information has been "verified" or is "in the process of verification."

RFE/RL has been able to verify that at least 152 people whose names are included on the activists' list have died from COVID-19.

Their diagnosis and subsequent deaths have been confirmed by relatives, local authorities, or health officials contacted by RFE/RL. In some cases, relatives provided medical documents and death certificates of the deceased to back their claims.

Some families told RFE/RL that their relatives suffered from obvious COVID-19 symptoms, but hospital administrations recorded their deaths as caused by pneumonia.

Despite not mentioning COVID-19 in official documents, health officials didn't release the bodies of the dead to the families, the relatives said. They were buried by medical workers that arrived in hazmat suits, the relatives and eyewitnesses told RFE/RL.

At least two hospital directors in Tajikistan told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that it was impossible to provide the exact number of COVID-19 deaths in the country because hospitals simply don't have test kits to verify the diagnosis.

Both officials said that because of the lack of testing capabilities they decided to put pneumonia as the cause of death of all patients who died with obvious COVID-19 symptoms.

Several other medics confirmed the claim.

RFE/RL filed a written request to the Health Ministry on June 3 asking for comment, but has yet to receive any response.

Tajikistan's record on publishing data on the outbreak has been questioned for some time. Through April authorities claimed the country was virus-free, even though independent media and social-media users had reported numerous fatal cases of "pneumonia" and were asking for an explanation.

Officials finally admitted on April 30 to having recorded 15 coronavirus infections, an announcement made ahead of a visit by experts from the World Health Organization to assess the pandemic situation in the impoverished Central Asian country of about 9 million.

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