Since its emergence toward the end of 2019, SARS-CoV-2 has spread around the world. Cases of COVID-19, which is the disease that SARS-CoV-2 causes, have officially been reported in almost every country — as have deaths to the disease. To date, there have been more than 4.8 million confirmed deaths globally.
A small number of countries have reported no cases or deaths. One of these countries is Turkmenistan. The WHO’s official statistics reflect the statistics provided by the country’s government.
However, reports from the country suggest that Turkmenistan has not miraculously escaped the effects of the pandemic. Like the countries it shares a border with, such as Iran and Afghanistan, it has experienced waves of infection — despite the government denying this.
Speaking with Medical News Today, Prof. Luca Anceschi — a professor of Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom and an expert on Central Asia — said that like in North Korea, the authoritarian government was attempting to uphold an image of ushering in a golden age for the country.
For the government, a global pandemic does not fit into this picture, so it denies it.
“Turkmenistan and North Korea are similar in the sense of being very authoritarian regimes, run by people who have a very eccentric approach,” said Prof. Anceschi. “They are also extremely isolated states, using their borders as a control mechanism to stop the access of new ideas that could be destabilizing.”
“Like North Korea, in Turkmenistan, the government has control over the media, and on top of that, there is a particular narrative that the government has been putting out for the last 15 or 20 years about Turkmenistan living in this golden age, and the golden age is there because the government brought it with it.”
“That makes the eruption of a pandemic impossible […] because it would challenge this narrative. We have seen the same with [HIV] and [AIDS], which is another illness [that] was never publicly acknowledged in Turkmenistan. It is characteristic of this regime to hide these kinds of situations,” said Prof. Anceschi.
This analysis was also backed up by Dr. Jason Klocek, an assistant professor in politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. and an expert on state repression. Dr. Klocek has also lived in Turkmenistan for 2 years.
Dr. Klocek told MNT that, “[i]n many ways, the Turkmenistan government’s denial of COVID-19 cases is in line with long standing policy.”
“For more than a decade, the government has also claimed there are no people living with [HIV or AIDS] in the country. And a series of outbreaks, including the bubonic plague, were reported by civil society organizations in the early 2000s but denied by government officials.”
“Add to this the fact that the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuahamedow, has used the image of a healthy nation — coupled with his previous dentistry career — to bolster his legitimacy. Admitting there is a COVID-19 outbreak could undermine that authority,” said Dr. Klocek.
According to Prof. Anceschi, the Turkmenistan government’s denial of COVID-19 in the country has created difficult conditions for people living there.
“It has been very difficult [for people living in the country] because Turkmenistan has had waves of infection, even last year.”
“Turkmenistan shares a border with Iran, which at one point was very significantly hit [by COVID-19], and with Afghanistan, which also has some problems. And, in general terms, all of Central Asia has infection rates as high as everywhere.”
“What is very difficult is the fact that there has been no considered effort to recognize this pandemic, which means no international cooperation. If public health is a human right, which it is, then that’s a lot of human rights violation that the government has perpetrated.”
“So, what can you do? The government at the beginning was saying that [COVID-19] doesn’t exist, and then it said it does exist but we have things like natural cures, and then, of course, people were dying.”
“What is incredible is [that the government’s messaging] is very dissonant: On the one hand, you have the fact that the government does not accept the fact that there is a pandemic, and then on the other, you start to see guidance for use of masks, hand-washing, and compulsory vaccination. So, the idea is that they don’t acknowledge the virus, but it is there.”
– Prof. Luca Anceschi
For Dr. Klocek, a key issue is the limited access to the country that makes getting detailed information on the COVID-19 situation difficult.
“The number of infections and the scale of their consequences are difficult to assess from outside the country,” said Dr. Klocek.
“Reports from civil society groups both within and outside the country suggest that the number of infections remains high and [that] hospitals are currently overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Individual reports of [citizens with the infection] are starting to surface via various media outlets.”
“The Turkmenistan government has also recently imposed additional travel restrictions in areas of the country where a high number of people are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.”
“Sadly, and similar to past outbreaks in the country, the extent of those suffering on the ground may not be known until it is too late to act,” added Dr. Klocek.
For Dr. Klocek, there has been too little focus on the situation in Turkmenistan from the international community.
“The international community has been largely silent [regarding the government’s claims]. There was a brief uptick in interest during the summer of 2020, when the WHO sent an observation team. But the visit was highly scripted, and the team could not confirm the presence of COVID-19 in the country.”
“[The team] did, however, express concern about ‘increased cases of acute respiratory disease or pneumonia of unknown cause’ and advised the country to carry out measures ‘as if there is coronavirus in the country.’”
“A Turkish diplomat also died of an illness with coronavirus-like symptoms in July 2020, but Turkish authorities remained silent on the matter, including the Turkmenistan government’s refusal to let the diplomat return to Turkey for treatment.”
“Since the summer of 2020, relatively little attention [had been] paid to the situation in Turkmenistan until the WHO’s regional director for Europe, [Dr.] Hans Kluge, traveled to Ashgabat this month.”
“A number of civil society organizations have tried to use the recent visit to put pressure on the WHO to make a formal statement about the situation in Turkmenistan. They are still waiting for a reply,” noted Dr. Klocek.
Prof. Anceschi said that the WHO had a responsibility to not simply repeat the government’s claims that there have been no cases of COVID-19 or related deaths.
“The WHO is as guilty as the regime. I understand that we live in the real world and you need to maintain access to a regime as intractable as Turkmenistan. However, as the WHO, you can’t just pretend that nothing is happening. Being cooperative with the regime means no one is safe.”
“The thing that is surprising is the totally pro-government line we got from the WHO. I tried to contact the WHO. They never replied. Other colleagues have had the same experience.”
“As I understand, in prior epidemic contexts — the avian flu or SARS-CoV-1 — [the WHO] would get back to you within 1 hour. They have been totally uncooperative with disseminating the truth.”
“The problem is that when you create a context in which this information [is] false, you have a further disservice: On top of not providing access to human rights in terms of public health, you also disseminate fake news. And [the WHO is] guilty of this. No one believes that Turkmenistan does not have COVID-19.”
“Now […] the government is making vaccination compulsory [and] running a campaign about washing your hands — what more do the WHO need to say there is a problem in Turkmenistan?”
“This consistent policy of sticking to the government line when the government is corrupt and has a tradition for disseminating fake data — I don’t understand why the WHO keeps being like this. It’s a very big credibility hit,” argued Prof. Anceschi.
On October 8, 2021, the government of Turkmenistan hosted an international forum on infectious disease control and health diplomacy. In it, the WHO’s Dr. Kluge said:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown unequivocally the fundamental importance of health for worldwide prosperity and security. There is a demonstrable need to rethink global governance structures, the relationship between the private and public sectors, and the values upon which our nations and societies operate.”
Dr. Kluge also stressed the importance of transparent communication, met with Turkmenistan government officials, and introduced the new WHO representative to Turkmenistan, Dr. Egor Zaitsev, to national officials. According to the WHO’s official page, the meeting explored further opportunities to strengthen the collaboration between the WHO and Turkmenistan.
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