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WHO Expresses Doubt Over Turkmenistan's Official COVID-Free Claim

Catherine Smallwood gives a briefing on the results of the visit of the WHO regional office for Europe mission to Turkmenistan in July 2020.
Catherine Smallwood gives a briefing on the results of the visit of the WHO regional office for Europe mission to Turkmenistan in July 2020.

A senior official of the World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed doubts about Turkmenistan's denial of a coronavirus presence within its borders.

Catherine Smallwood, a WHO senior emergencies officer, told the BBC on November 8 that "from the scientific point of view, it's unlikely that the virus is not circulating in Turkmenistan."

Smallwood's comments represent the first public challenge by the WHO to Turkmenistan's claim that is COVID-free.

Turkmenistan has insisted that the country has no cases despite reports that hospitals are filling up with sick patients and deaths from suspected coronavirus cases are soaring across the country.

Smallwood said that the government of the tightly controlled former Soviet republic "has a long history of suppressing data and a long history of punishing people who expose the truth."

However, Smallwood told the BBC that the health body could not "call into question" whether a country was following its legal obligations to provide transparent information pertaining to global health crises.

Smallwood, who led the only official WHO coronavirus mission to Turkmenistan in July 2020, said it was more important to "build a dialogue" with countries.

While officially denying the presence of the coronavirus, Turkmen authorities have taken unprecedented health measures in an apparent attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.

Turkmenistan's government earlier this week extended restrictions usually imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The measures requiring private shops and restaurants to close, and street vendors to cease their activities were set to end on November 1, but the authorities extended them for two weeks. Weddings, burials, or other ceremonies will also remain banned across the country.

After visiting Turkmenistan in 2020, Smallwood said her team had not seen or heard anything that would contradict the government's assertion that coronavirus does not exist in Turkmenistan.

However, Smallwood did recommend that the authorities take "critical public-health measures in Turkmenistan, as if COVID-19 was circulating" in the country.

With reporting by the BBC

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