30th July, 2020 – countries are slowly reopening, national plans for lifting the lockdown measures and slow economic recovery agendas have been set. However, there is one region that has been struggling with all of the above until now, and that is the post-Soviet zone. In particular, the Central Asian countries or the so-called ‘stans’, have been huffing and puffing from the moment COVID-19 was first detected within their borders, desperately trying to curb the growing numbers and maintain a strict quarantine.
Let’s review each one of the stans and how successful they are in grappling with the invisible enemy. Warning: high-level coronavirus conspiracy theories and ethnoscience ahead.
KAZAKHSTAN – the largest country in Central Asia and arguably the most economically developed. Kazakhstan imposed the lockdown almost simultaneously with the most affected EU countries such as Spain, Italy and Germany. Anyone arriving from the first-degree infected countries were to be put on a two-week quarantine in a specialised hospital. The police stood on every corner, no one was allowed out except to buy groceries and empty the pharmacies. Sounds about right? Not quite.
People have and continue to violate the regime of self-quarantine, wearing masks in public spaces and self-distancing. The local governments have enforced the fine system for those who violate the safety measures but this has led to a nation-wide uproar and weak compliance. Besides, the fining was unsystematic – some people were let off easily and some were fined relentlessly. This was a dark period of uncertainty and incompetency on both ends. The issue is – what now?
Kazakhstan, despite being the economic front-runner of Central Asia, is the first country in the world to have returned to a second lockdown while all European states and neighbouring countries enjoyed the long-awaited easement of measures. Any guess as to why? Along with coronavirus, a sudden outbreak of a ‘suspicious’ pneumonia has caused a huge surge in the numbers of infected people, spreading to neighbouring countries.
People are continuously breaking sanitary norms and, despite the second lockdown, visit parks, restaurant terraces and salons – anywhere where the risk of infection is exponentially higher. After 3rd August, the measures will be gradually lifted but this begs a question – should the people expect a third lockdown?
UZBEKISTAN – Uzbekistan is the guardian of Central Asian culture and history, a former favourite of the Soviet power and an all-time great place to be. It is also home to the world’s primary cotton industry, producing cotton for international corporations and giving rise to numerous ethical issues (but that’s a topic for another time).
Since April 1st, a regime of self-isolation has been introduced in the capital and regions, and citizens over 65 years of age are prohibited from leaving their homes.
During the quarantine, Uzbekistan closed schools, kindergartens and universities, and Tashkent has restricted the movement of citizens, including by bicycles and scooters. It is prohibited to go out without masks. Police raids are conducted to identify violators.
Moreover, the authorities have banned citizens from spreading panic: a fine of up to 89 million soums ($8,724) or restriction of liberty for up to 5 years has been imposed. The penalty for going out without a mask is 669 thousand soums ($65). Radical but effective?
Doctors advised people to use harmala, a type of herb, at home to prevent colds. An equivalent to this would be recommending burning palo santo to dispel the virus or myrrh used in churches. Suffice to say, the competence of the doctors remains in question.
KYRGYZSTAN – Kyrgyzstan is traditionally considered to be the younger, energetic brother of Kazakhstan. Much smaller in size, Kyrgyzstan has proven numerous times to be the driving force behind freedom of speech and political change in the whole region. The revolution and subsequent overthrow of the government in 2010 led to the emergency of a new parliamentary system through a constitutional referendum, making the president a ceremonial position with few powers. Nevertheless, the situation with coronavirus in Kyrgyzstan follows the same pattern of incompetency and strict fining.
Kyrgyzstan’s emergency regime began March 25, first introduced in Bishkek, the capital city.
The capital city has a curfew between 8pm and 7am, limited public transport, and taxis cannot leave either. Before leaving home, citizens still have to fill out personal route sheets.
Around the capital there are checkpoints for temperature and residence permit. Quarantine violators face a fine of up to 300,000 soms ($3,908). Citizens were instructed not to leave home without an urgent need: you can go out for food, to a pharmacy or a medical institution. The usual.
However, apart from the normative government measures, there is a drastic lack of medical workers to effectively fend off the advance of the virus. The medical workers were left to work through the erroneous statistics and poor government recommendations, relying on volunteers more than on their own local government.
Luckily for the emancipated country that Kyrgyzstan is, the medics openly demanded the government ‘to be honest with the public’. It was a direct discrimination: hospitals did not accept “negative” test results even if more drastic symptoms of pneumonia were there. People were dying: a lot and suddenly. This proved that the statistics were a gross distortion of the reality.
TURKMENISTAN – Also known as the North Korea of Central Asia, Turkmenistan is the only country in the region that reportedly does not have any coronavirus cases. The Turkmen officials have repeatedly denied the existence of any infected cases. The Turkmen government has been accused of concealing information and access to social media, which is why the World Health Organisation (WHO) has sent its representatives in July to report on the actual situation and urge the government to comply with the WHO guidelines on safety.
Local publications and media companies are under enormous pressure. Organisations from abroad have taken on the responsibility to voice the concerns of a silenced nation. The publication “Reporters without Borders” reports that the Turkmen media avoid using the word “coronavirus”. The reporters say that they are threatened with detention for mentioning the infection in the conversation. To avoid the infection, the country’s authorities advised citizens to smoke the premises with harmala. Turkmenistan’s Health Minister said a harmala is widely used not only in healing, but also in modern medicine. Once again, a reminder that harmala is NOT an effective weapon against coronavirus, or any virus for that matter.
RUSSIA – Last but surely not the least, Russia continues to be the pinnacle of all regions that were involved in the Soviet Union, and it would be quite strange to ignore its tactics against coronavirus.
In Russia, from the end of March, a regime of general self-isolation was introduced. Russian President Putin declared a non-working week from March 30 to April 5, which was then extended to April 30 and turned into a non-working month.
A permit system was introduced in Moscow and the Moscow region on April 13. Residents have limited access to the street for no good reason: they can only leave their homes to buy groceries, medicines, travel to work or to visit medical institutions. Cafes, restaurants, shopping centres and parks were finally reopened recently.
So what is the main highlight to take away from Central Asia and Russia in their struggle against the omnipresent virus? Like anywhere in the world, a system of fines, arrests and movement restrictions is the primary instrument flocking the herd of confused and frightened people to stay home. But that’s about the only strategy against coronavirus imposed in Central Asian countries and Russia. Unsurprisingly. This is what the national governments in the post-Soviet zone are best at doing – raising fear and commanding authority, leaving the virus to ‘evaporate’ on its own. Stimulus checks? At most, for a month. Official statistics? Inaccurate and double-dealing.
Many mistakes have been made and are continued to be made by both the government and the people. ‘Coronavirus deniers’ exist everywhere and are not unique to Central Asia but they are unique in their reasoning when compared to those in the West. Weirdly enough, Bill Gates has become the main culprit behind the global pandemic for the majority of Central Asian speculators and conspiracy theorists – an excuse for people to violate the needed measures.
The only hope at the moment lies with the medical staff and doctors. However, judging by the constant propagation of ethno-scientific medicine through the use of harmala and other herbs, medicine in Central Asia is yet to break through the backward mindset of ‘if it worked for our ancestors, it will for us’.
Early to the party but the last to leave – coronavirus in Central Asia in a nutshell.