ASHGABAT -- Turkmenistan, whose authoritarian leader claims the Central Asian state has not registered a single case of COVID-19, has secretly recorded some 25,000 deaths linked to the disease since the pandemic began two years ago, a source inside the health-care system says.
"Although the death toll from [the coronavirus] has not been made public, it is reported to the Ministry of Health every day from the provinces," the source told RFE/RL.
Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic home to around 6 million people according to official figures, is one of at least five countries that have not reported any coronavirus cases, according to a review of data collected by Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organization. Three of those are isolated islands in the Pacific and the fourth is North Korea, a tightly-controlled, closed state.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who has ruled since 2006, has dismissed reports of COVID-19 in the country as "fake" and told the United Nations in an address in September that the response to the pandemic shouldn't be "politicized."
The source inside Turkmenistan's health-care system said the number of actual deaths linked to COVID-19 was likely higher than 25,000, noting that regional health workers were downplaying the scale of the pandemic.
"Regional officials are afraid and are lowering the death toll that is being reported to the center," the source said.
The northeastern Lebap Province and the southeastern Mary Province have become COVID-19 hot spots, the source added.
Despite denying the disease exists in the country, Turkmenistan has imposed strict restrictions in areas where a high number of people with coronavirus-like symptoms have been reported.
Ashgabat in July made vaccination mandatory for all residents aged 18 and over. The gas-rich country has procured vaccines from Russia and China.
According to the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, Democratic Civil Union of Turkmenistan, Association of Independent Lawyers of Turkmenistan, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, and Turkmen.News online newspaper, the epidemiological situation in Turkmenistan is dramatic due to the spread of the coronavirus.