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Will WHO Find The 'Coronavirus' When It Returns To Turkmenistan?


People in Turkmenistan have been told to wear face masks because of "dust."

It looks as if the World Health Organization (WHO) will send another mission to Turkmenistan after the group's July visit seems to have satisfied no one.

Turkmenistan's government still clings to its narrative that the country has no cases of coronavirus -- even though practically no one believes it and the WHO was criticized by many who said the mission helped Turkmen officials by backing up Ashgabat's bizarre claim.

But according to the Twitter account of Hans Kluge, WHO's European regional bureau director, on August 7, Turkmenistan is ready to allow a second WHO mission to visit and independently take samples back to its labs for testing.

In another tweet three days later, Kluge wrote that he spoke with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and Health Minister Nurmuhammet Amannepesov about a WHO mission "ASAP" to check suspected COVID-19 patients.

The WHO's reasons for wanting another visit seem clear.

As Kluge mentioned in his first tweet, he and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had a video conference with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to discuss "serious concerns about COVID-19 negative pneumonia."

There are reports about large outbreaks of pneumonia in Turkmenistan, the same infection that authorities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are linking to the coronavirus but that Turkmen officials continue to downplay and dismiss as not being connected to COVID-19.

Those concerns must be serious for the WHO chief to be involved in a call with someone like Berdymukhammedov, whose penchant for cheap theatrics on state television that portray him as a wise ruler, warrior, athlete, poet, musician, and scholar have made him the butt of jokes in international media.

But the WHO mission to Turkmenistan in July disappointed many.

The visit was first delayed by some 10 weeks and some felt the delay allowed Turkmen authorities to clean up sites the WHO team would visit but never had a chance to see the patients who had been infected with the virus or the true state of health care at Turkmen medical facilities.

When the head of the WHO team, Catherine Smallwood, made her statement at a press conference at the end of the visit, she said, "Based on what the team was able to observe...."

Since then there have been questions about whether the WHO visit might actually have boosted Turkmen authorities' claim that the coronavirus is not in their country.

A group of demonstrators gathered outside the WHO office in Washington on July 29, laid out several fake coffins and chanted: "The WHO is lying! Turkmen are dying!"

Turkmen activists demand an explanation from the WHO in Washington on July 29.
Turkmen activists demand an explanation from the WHO in Washington on July 29.

Reports from independent media such as Khronika Turkmenistana, Turkmen.news, and from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service -- known locally as Azatlyk -- in the weeks since the WHO visit indicate Turkmenistan's health-care system is overwhelmed and there are shortages of medicine, equipment, and beds for all the sick people who are suddenly coming for treatment.

Medical workers are increasingly being infected because few of them have the proper personal-protection equipment and what they do have they must purchase for themselves.

Those who refuse to work risk losing their license to practice medicine.

The number of deaths due to COVID-19-like symptoms is increasing and along with it the number of graves -- with reports that authorities insist that all new grave sites be level, with no headstones or other markers, and groups are banned from attending funerals.

Not long after those rules were imposed, there were reports the bodies of those who likely died from COVID-19 were being taken from hospitals after sunset and brought to graveyards for burial at night.

Turkmen state media does not report on this, but the attempted cover-up is failing miserably and the incompetence shown by the government is adding to the people's suffering.

That may explain why WHO chief Tedros took part in the video conference with Berdymukhammedov, to underline the importance of Turkmenistan cooperating with the organization.

Naturally, Turkmen state media distorted the essence of the conversation between Kluge, Tedros, and Berdymukhammedov, reporting instead that the WHO officials consulted with Berdymukhammedov, with him agreeing on the "need to increase international cooperation aimed at jointly combating the spread of acute infectious diseases."

Berdymukhammedov, a dentist by training, also reportedly offered Tedros and Kluge his advice on how best to battle the global pandemic, according to Turkmen state media.

Kluge's tweets show the WHO wants to test inside Turkmenistan as well as send samples abroad. And Kluge indicated the WHO wants to send a team back to the country as soon as it can.

While Kluge wrote that the "president agreed," that does not mean a WHO mission will be back in Turkmenistan soon.

The last attempt took more than two months to coordinate and, as Eurasianet reported, even if a WHO team does arrive in Turkmenistan, "it cannot be excluded that the authorities will contrive ways to perpetuate their fiction."

One final thought: Turkmen authorities -- and Berdymukhammedov in particular -- have been advertising Turkmenistan's advantageous location at the crossroads of the Eurasian continent for many years, trying to sell the country as a hub of east-west and north-south trade. Berdymukhammedov is even alleged to have written a book, Turkmenistan Is The Heart Of The Great Silk Road.

If that is true, then how did this crossroads manage to avoid the coronavirus, something that has affected every country to its north, south, east, and west?

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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