PC: Ruslan Pryanikov of Foreign Policy
Why does Türkmenistan have seven quarantines and zero officially diagnosed Coronavirus cases? Currently, there is a quarantine site in each of the 5 Provinces (Ahal, Balkan, Dashoguz, Lebap, and Mary) plus two additional sites within the capital province (Ahal). The most exclusive of these is situated in the valley of Archabil(formerly known as Powrize) about 10-20 km from the capital city, Aşgabat. Because the house of the president is also located in this valley, it has been designated for close relatives and contacts of the president. Average citizens are sent to a second nearby location in Choganly. The third quarantine of this province is located on the Iranian-Turkmen border region of Sarahs. Second only to China, Iran has suffered the highest recorded number of deaths associated with the virus (NBC, 2020). Given that Aşgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan is a mere 1-hour drive from the Iranian border, it is almost impossible to believe that the country has not contracted any cases of the virus.
While Coronavirus (COVID-19) is undoubtedly present in Türkmenistan, the grave lack of documentation of the virus is concerning for a number of reasons. The most serious being that citizens are being blocked access to potentially life-saving knowledge. They have no way of knowing what measures they must take to protect themselves, nor even perhaps that they are in danger or why. Rumors and informal news of this virus are all the publicity that Coronavirus has received in Türkmenistan. This is not because the country is immune nor is it because the virus is absent, but rather because the spread of Coronavirus is being actively hushed. This is to the extent that the Ministry of Health and Medical Industry of Türkmenistan has forbidden local hospitals to diagnose patients with Coronavirus.
Alongside campaigns to silence the issue, airports have been compelled to cancel flights with China, Thailand, and Turkey: “Dear passengers! From 25.02.2020 to 31.03.2020 flights between the following destinations are cancelled: Aşgabat–Pekin – Aşgabat; Aşgabat–Bangkok – Aşgabat; Aşgabat–Istambul; Aşgabat – Ankara.” In spite of the growing number of persons contained within Turkmenistan’s seven quarantines, the government has continued to reject all news about the existence or spread of Coronavirus within its borders. In one case, a young woman (between 20-30 years of age) died due to Coronavirus, however, the doctor was required to declare the cause of death to be “blood pressure.” Even as the virus fans into other regions, the vast majority of people in Türkmenistan are unaware that they are even in danger.
The situation is compounded by the poor state of medical care available for even normal illnesses and an ongoing inability to handle infections such as Tuberculosis (TB). The medical system is simply not equipped to handle epidemics. Thus, the state chooses to deny the existence of the problem. In spite of prevalent risk, the state of Türkmenistan was also extremely delayed in limiting the free movement of persons in and out of China, where the virus originated. There are several thousand Chinese citizens in Türkmenistan and, because many of them are working in the natural gas industry, travel between Türkmenistan and China is frequent. Additionally, due to the extremely positive relationship between the Chinese and Turkmen regimes, other flows of people (such as student exchanges) have continued with little disruption until recently. According to the Chinese Ambassador, over 2,400 Turkmen students are also studying in various specializations as well. To strengthen TM-CN relations on humanitarian grounds, the Chinese Embassy in Türkmenistan has been organizing trips to China for youth, athletes, teachers, students and schoolchildren from Türkmenistan for several years. If Chinese individuals have been permitted to come and go freely (as they have been until recent flight cancellations) then it is highly plausible that they either brought this virus with them or accelerated circulation throughout Türkmenistan.
After an initial period of hesitation, some increased measures are being taken while other cautions are wholly ignored. For example, those who arrived in Türkmenistan in early February were initially kept in quarantine for 14 days. Newly released information indicates that the quarantine sentence for persons coming from China, Thailand, and Iran has been prolonged to one month. However, no reservations have been spared where large gatherings are concerned. WHO advisories caution that, because contagions are far more likely to spread with increased physical contact, large gatherings should not be held in regions at risk. This admonition was violated twice last week (in Lebap and Mary) during two large traditional ceremonies hosted for Sadaka, which were organized to honor the dead and demonstrate charity. At each of the president’s gatherings, several thousand people were present. By taking the worst possible action one could take –twice—the president has demonstrated that even he has no clue what he should or should not do to defend against the virus.
One silver lining to the situation is that, in spite of the agenda to keep the situation quiet, the government has begun to take more appropriate protective measures on the frontlines of issue: international airports. Here, travelers are tested for the virus at airports during an approximately 9-hour holding period. Reports have indicated that, most typically, the test has been conducted by swabbing samples from beneath the tongue. COVID-19 can be tested by sampling the upper respiratory tract via a Nasopharyngeal swab (NPS), by taking a viral throat swab, or sampling the lower respiratory tract (when possible) via sputum. The latter is only possible however if the infected person is coughing. The tests are conducted indiscriminately, regardless of the passengers’ original departing location. Türkmenistan has the capacity to purchase this vital test from Germany, China, or Israel but purchasing medical equipment is extremely expensive (especially from Israel). Further complicating the issue, there is a lag between the contraction of the virus and its detectability. This means that even with the proper test, it may not fully describe the health condition of the person tested.
While airport testing measures represent a step in the right direction, it cannot be expected to resolve the issue of Coronavirus in Turkmenistan. If more urgent and appropriate action is not taken soon, the fusion of unlucky geography and poor health management may turn Türkmenistan into one of the most infected countries ---if it isn’t already.
**Note: Ruslan Pryanikov's photography illustrates law enforcement officers on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstanhstan. His picture depicts the COVID-19 crackdowns many authoritarian regimes in Cental Asia are implementing, including those of Türkmenistan.