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Volunteer Medics Came To Kyrgyzstan To Fight COVID-19. Now They Can't Go Home.


Medical workers in protective suits admit patients at a new day hospital Bishkek in July.

At the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in Kyrgyzstan this summer, dozens of Kyrgyz medics generously came from Russia to help fight the virus, which had overwhelmed the poor Central Asian country's health-care system.

After several weeks of volunteer work in the pandemic's so-called red zones -- the areas with high infection rates -- many of the workers are now unable to return home due to Moscow's lockdown measures.

Russia has closed its borders to foreigners, allowing only those who have a permanent residence permit to enter. Many of the Kyrgyz medics only moved to Russia in recent years and don't have a Russian passport or long-term visa.

"Those who have Russian citizenship returned to Russia, despite having to pay for quite expensive tickets. But we're not allowed to reenter [Russia]," said Gulbahar Koshoeva, one of the medics stuck in Kyrgyzstan.

"At my workplace in Russia I had asked a colleague to temporarily replace me," Koshoeva said.

She came to Kyrgyzstan in August planning on several weeks of work at the Semetei medical facility near Bishkek, which was turned into a specialized hospital for COVID-19 patients.

Koshoeva was among a group of nearly 100 medical volunteers who arrived in Kyrgyzstan when the country faced a severe shortage of health professionals, hospital beds, drugs, and equipment in what was a very desperate time for the Kyrgyz people.

A medical specialist treats patients at a hospital in Bishkek in July.
A medical specialist treats patients at a hospital in Bishkek in July.

'Just Let Us Go'

Nurgul Kambaralieva, an organizer of the campaign, said the volunteers flew to Kyrgyzstan in three groups.

She said some of them have since returned to their jobs and families in Russia, while a few have decided to stay in Kyrgyzstan to help hospitals in their native villages that are still in dire conditions and desperate for assistance.

Others have completed their volunteer work but are unable to go back and don't know what will happen with their relatively well-paid jobs in Russia.

Many went on unpaid leave and planned on returning in several weeks. Now they face an uncertain future.

"Before leaving Russia for Kyrgyzstan, we wrote to the Kyrgyz Embassy that we must come back to our workplaces to Russia," said Dr. Meken Abdaliev, who came to Kyrgyzstan on July 12.

"We're not asking for any money or financial support for our travel expenses. We can pay for the tickets ourselves," Abdaliev said. He wants the Kyrgyz authorities to help the medics get back to their jobs in Russia.

Nearly 100 medical volunteers arrived in Kyrgyzstan when the country faced a severe shortage of health professionals, hospital beds, drugs, and equipment earlier this year.
Nearly 100 medical volunteers arrived in Kyrgyzstan when the country faced a severe shortage of health professionals, hospital beds, drugs, and equipment earlier this year.

"The medics came to help Kyrgyzstan when the country needed them the most. They worked hard here," Kyrgyz Deputy Health Minister Nurbolot Usenbaev said.

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But Usenbaev points out that the medics' reentry into Russia is beyond the Kyrgyz government's authority. "The Foreign Ministry [could possibly help] with the issue of the medics' return [to Russia]. From our end, we also try to help by sending a letter of appeal," he said.

Kyrgyzstan has asked the Russian government to resume regular flights between the two countries. Russia hasn't yet agreed.

There have been some 45,000 people infected with the coronavirus in Kyrgyzstan, a country of about 6 million people. More than 1,000 have died. Both numbers are thought to be lower than the actual number of cases and deaths.

Only a handful of flights have resumed between Kyrgyzstan and Russia recently, but it remains unclear when Russia will open its borders to Kyrgyz citizens and other foreigners.

Before the pandemic, Russia hosted millions of migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by Aigerim Akylbekova of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service
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