The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has already infected almost 3 million people all over the world with more than 200,000 fatal cases, as of the end of April 2020. Although, for a long time, Central Asia was among the few regions in the world without registered positive coronavirus cases, since mid-March 2020 the situation has changed. Kazakhstan became the first Central Asian country that recorded infected patients on March 13, followed by Uzbekistan on March 15 and Kyrgyzstan on March 18. As of the end of April, Kazakhstan had over 3,400 positive cases, Uzbekistan was behind Kazakhstan with more than 2,000 cases, and Kyrgyzstan had almost 750 infected patients [Worldometer, 2020]. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan remain among the few countries in the world that have not officially registered any cases of infection. In this paper, the author attempts to analyze the strategies of the Central Asian governments in dealing with the new reality of 2020 and interim results that stem from the implemented measures.
As many countries of the world, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan are following the practice of lockdown to counter the spread of COVID-19. All three governments has chosen proactive methods by implementing preventive measures and immediately putting total domestic quarantine once the positive cases emerged. Kazakhstan declared a state of emergency on March 16 and introduced the strict quarantine regime in major cities, Nur-Sultan, Almaty and Shymkent, while other regions put quarantine in place depending on the epidemiological situation. Kyrgyzstan introduced a state of emergency on March 22 and imposed a curfew in the cities of Bishkek, Osh and Jalal-Abad, as well as in the Nookat, Kara-Suy and Suzak districts. Uzbekistan announced the so-called enhanced regime against the spread of coronavirus on March 24 and adopted a number of restrictions, including the prescription not to go outside unless absolutely necessary. Moreover, all three countries closed educational institutions and switched to distance learning, suspended traffic between cities and introduced a home-office/day-offs until the end of the quarantine regime. It is noteworthy that both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan extended the state of emergency, initially introduced for one month, first until the end of April and then until May 11, 2020, while Uzbekistan prolonged its restrictive measures until the later date at once.
While the world media argue on the effectiveness of authoritarian regimes in controlling the pandemic, the Central Asian leaders use the situation to consolidate their power. By introducing a state of emergency, the authorities aim to resolve simultaneously a number of issues caused or revealed by the pandemic. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, officially, the state of emergency was necessary to ease the bureaucratic mechanisms for responding promptly to the emerging needs of the healthcare system and other relevant structures, such as urgent purchases of medical products. At the same time, it timely contributes to overcoming popular discontent arising from the beginning of the world economic recession and devaluation caused by the declining oil prices. In particular, as an oil-dependent country, Kazakhstan experienced an 18% devaluation of tenge, which caused a relatively low level of indignation among the population due to a common fear of the pandemic. In addition, the country’s parliament hastily adopted a draft law on rallies, which was criticized by human rights activists as “not complying with international standards” [Informburo, 2020a; Aqattyq, 2020a]. In Kyrgyzstan, there is a high level of tension since almost all small businesses are on the verge of bankruptcy, but this situation is not widely covered. Meanwhile, following the parliamentary elections held amid the pandemic, the Tajik parliament elected Rustam Emomali as the chair of its upper chamber, thus making him second-in-line to the presidency [Putz, 2020]. Thus, some governments are taking advantage of the pandemic using the reduced ability of the population to react.
As noted above, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan still declare themselves free from the novel disease. Both countries have not implemented any restrictions on public life, and, moreover, continue to deny the very existence of coronavirus in their countries. In the case of Tajikistan, despite a number of suspicious deaths in a quarantine facility for coronavirus, the Tajik Minister of Health stated that there was “no real basis for quarantine in the country” [Kabar, 2020]. Given that from February 1 to April 13, according to the statistics of the Ministry of Health of Tajikistan, over 7,700 people were quarantined at the medical facilities and two deaths due to pneumonia were officially registered at the quarantine facilities, it is difficult to believe in the absence of infected people [Spuntik, 2020a]. In addition, the fact that over one million Tajiks working in Russia moved back due to the closure of enterprises and the travel ban calls into question the official statistics on coronavirus. Nevertheless, it seems that official Dushanbe is opting to deny any cases of the disease. Moreover, the capital’s authorities were busy with preparing the mass celebration of Dushanbe’s birthday on April 18, but canceled the event at the last moment [Spuntik, 2020b].
A rather bizarre situation is observed in Turkmenistan, which, on April 7, celebrated the health day with a mass bike ride, and resumed matches of the National Football Championship on April 19 [Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 2020a; Sportbox, 2020]. Besides, in Turkmenistan, it is restricted to use the word “coronavirus” in public, and people are detained for discussing the pandemic. Even after the meeting with the ministers of health and education on preventing the entry of coronavirus into the country, the president ordered further comprehensive work to identify cases of acute respiratory illness, not coronavirus, in Turkmenistan [Chronicles of Turkmenistan, 2020b]. Nonetheless, in early March, the media informed about two potential patients who were quarantined under conditions of “strict isolation” and later diagnosed with COVID-19 [Azattyq, 2020b]. However, it was not confirmed officially. Either way, the government reinforced disinfection in public places and put additional restrictive measures to prevent the spread of the novel disease in the country.
Definitely, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have chosen to negate cases of infection in their countries by putting politics ahead of people’s health, and by that the governments appear to hide obvious flaws of their public health systems. It is especially vivid in Turkmenistan, where President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov turned the healthcare system into an essential component of his nation-building ideology and cult of personality. Since being elected in 2007, President Berdymukhamedov has been using the healthcare system as an instrument to promote his regime by claiming that the medical sector reached the peak of modernity during his rule and making the health sector a core feature of the Turkmen nation. However, while promoting healthcare as a pillar of nation-building, he abuses it as a tool of regime survival. Yet, international organizations report on the outdated infrastructure and shortage of investments, as well as on the low level of medical training [Peyrouse, 2019]. In addition, the economic crisis of the past several years has seriously affected the already poor conditions of the Turkmen medical sector. Therefore, the government has been attempting to avoid the destabilization of the country by claiming that the authorities control the situation and combat the spread of COVID-19. Considering that Turkmenistan has an experience of banning the diagnosis of tuberculosis and other diseases, it is expected that this practice will continue unless a dramatic change of the situation takes place.
Tajikistan, similarly, has essential flaws in the health sector. The Tajik health system with weak budgeting practices has fewer healthcare professionals per capita than other Central Asian countries [Jacobs, 2020]. Taking into account that the presidential election is scheduled in the country in 2020, the essential flaws of the socio-economic policy might heavily affect outcomes of the election. It seems that Rahmon’s government attempts to display the absence of infected people as the right course of the government in controlling the spread of coronavirus. However, in reality, doubtful deaths cause uncertainty among the population.
On the other hand, every country has its own problems in public healthcare. The public health sector of most of the Central Asian states has problems with inefficiently allocated funds, low-qualified personnel, poor working conditions, especially in rural areas, among other issues, which is dangerous in case of an increase of infected patients. For instance, in Kazakhstan, there were scandals with the lack of protective equipment, and two infectious diseases hospitals were closed for quarantine, with over 20% of infected patients being medical doctors [EurAsia Daily, 2020]. Likewise, in Kyrgyzstan, medical personnel claimed the absence of protective equipment, whereas 19% of infected patients are medical staff [Kudryavtseva and Orlova, 2020]. Uzbekistan, meanwhile, is taking decisive actions to control the dissemination of information about the conditions of medical care. All gadgets, including mobile phones and even bank cards, are seized from people placed under the coronavirus quarantine, allegedly to prevent the spread of infection, but, in fact, to eliminate the circulation of unreasonable and distorted information [Spuntik, 2020c].
Meanwhile, President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev was the first to introduce incentive payments for medical personnel working with infected patients in the amount between $500-2,500 per month. He also allocated additional $10,000 for medical workers, infected with coronavirus while working with patients [President.uz, 2020]. This news was picked up by activists from the neighboring states, and, as a result, the wage coefficient of doctors involved in the treatment of patients with COVID-19 was recalculated in other countries of the region, too. Kazakhstan announced payments for medical workers involved in the treatment of coronavirus between $500-2,000 in addition to their salary, while infected medical workers will be paid a one-time social payment in the amount of $4,600, and in the case of death their families will receive $23,500 [Informburo, 2020b]. Kyrgyzstan will also pay compensation for medical staff ranging between $500-2,500, with $2500 to be paid to infected medical workers and $12,500 in the case of death [Current Time, 2020]. Apart from that, following the example of the Wuhan coronavirus hospitals that were built over a week, three hospitals are planned to be built in Tashkent within a month. Kazakhstan has also announced plans to build three hospitals in two weeks in three major cities as part of the fight against the coronavirus infection. Those measures demonstrate that despite the existing systemic issues in the healthcare sector, the governments have been urgently responding to the needs of healthcare, which also shows the capacity and maturity of the state policy.
Turning to the issue of economic consequences of the total lockdown and an expected downturn of the economy in the aftermath of the pandemic, the Central Asian governments also attempt to optimize their budgets and maintain compensation mechanisms. President of Kazakhstan Tokayev introduced two anti-crisis packages on March 16 and 31, to support businesses, people and economy, which basically include the deferred credit fees, tax holidays, a moratorium on tax audits and other forms of support for people and business. In addition, he presented a targeted assistance scheme for the population, under which a social compensation was allocated for over 3 million people in the amount of the minimum wage (around $100) for the loss of income due to the state of emergency [Atameken Business, 2020]. Uzbek President Mirziyoyev on March 19 announced the priority measures to respond to the consequences of the pandemic and on April 3 declared new mechanisms to support businesses, public and economy [Review.uz, 2020]. A more difficult situation is in Kyrgyzstan. From the outset, it was clear that the government would not be able to provide social compensation to the population. Although the authorities announced a preparation of the anti-crisis plan in the beginning of March, the anti-crisis measures were declared only on March 30, yet two days later, the government addressed the parliament, presenting a number of adjustments aimed at stabilizing the socio-economic situation in the country. Moreover, the business community was disappointed with the presented measures that basically granted deferrals for taxes, social security contributions and property leases that only allow adjusting plans of companies for the near future [Kudryavtseva, 2020]. Kyrgyz Prime Minister Abylgaziev admitted that large losses are expected in the country’s budget, therefore the government is looking for other sources of money [Masalieva, 2020]. Subsequently, Kyrgyzstan has been involved in negotiations with international donors in a search of support to cope with the economic impact of the global outbreak.
As a result, Kyrgyzstan has become the first country for which the IMF approved the allocation of $121 million to meet the emerging needs of the balance of payments arising from the pandemic. Prior to that, the U.S. government, through the USAID, transferred to three specialized organizations more than $913,000 that will contribute to the needs of the country. The World Bank will also provide $12 million, half as a loan and half as a grant, while the German GIZ allocated a grant of 550,000 euros [Asanov, 2020; Zholdoshev, 2020]. In addition to the international financial organizations, President Jeenbekov requested China to postpone payments of the Kyrgyz external debt in order to spend the money allocated for the external debt for eliminating the consequences of the crisis.
Although Tajikistan could juggle with numbers on the cases of infection, it is arguably difficult to repeat in economy. Hence, the Tajik government has also been actively negotiating on attracting financial aid in accordance with its emergency response programs. It is worth emphasizing the success of these efforts as the World Bank allocated $11.3 million to Tajikistan to combat the threat of coronavirus, in addition to the Asian Development Bank’s grant of $50 million, which will be allocated in three stages. In addition, the country will receive $866,000 from the U.S. government and 1 million euro from Germany to combat the outcomes of the pandemic [Ashurov, 2020]. Altogether, the Central Asian states have received humanitarian aid from Russia, China and other states, mostly in the form of medical supplies, tests and equipment. On top of that, Kazakhstan has provided humanitarian aid to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the amount of 5,000 tons of flour, worth over $3 million, while Uzbekistan has sent humanitarian assistance not only to these two countries, but also to Afghanistan.
Definitely, during such a challenging time for the world, regional support and coordination are very important. That is why the heads of the Central Asian states have been constantly negotiating on the common efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 and provide mutual support to overcome the negative consequences of the pandemic. In addition, the issues related to maintaining intraregional ties and ensuring unhindered supply of products are highly important. It should be noted that, with or without cases of infection, every country experiences a constant threat of that the situation will dramatically change due to the pandemic. Therefore, the leaders of all the Central Asian states had at least one telephone conversation with its regional counterpart, during which they discussed bilateral and regional challenges caused by the outbreak of coronavirus. Multilateral platforms, as the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council) and the EAEU Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, held online summit meetings, where the member states discussed important multilateral approaches to tackle the consequences of the pandemic and common measures to overcome the economic crisis. It is evident that although the priority task is to mitigate the consequences of the lockdown, in the medium-term, the tendency towards weakening economies in the Central Asian countries will continue. Consequently, ensuring economic security, deepening the political dialogue, and expanding trade and economic interaction are highly important.
By and large, the ongoing pandemic revealed the vulnerabilities and core values of our life. First of all, it is a test of strength and maturity for every government. The unprecedented scale of change is anticipated in state policies since the implications of the pandemic are not confined to one sector. Therefore, timely and targeted support of people and businesses is essential to overcome the implications of the crisis. Consequently, the interim outputs from the pandemic could be summarized as follows:
– The positive tendency is that all regional leaders understand the extent and implications of the problem, hence all are in a search for joint solutions. Accordingly, in the face of the common threat, the Central Asian states will further deepen regional interaction that will encourage developing effective mechanisms of cooperation and integration. In this regard, the past two consultation meetings of the heads of the Central Asian countries are believed to contribute to enhancing political trust in the region, which, in turn, will further enhance regional solidarity. It also opens new perspectives for regional cooperation, since by reviving the once common economic system, all of the involved states could gain from that as never before.
– The large-scale and multilateral anti-epidemic measures taken in a timely manner by the Central Asian states, as well as complex anti-crisis mechanisms, demonstrated the pragmatic approach of the leaders. Taking into account that three countries of the region have undergone a leadership change in the past several years, the ongoing crisis is a perfect opportunity to assess the political will and strength of the incumbents. By implementing targeted solutions in line with the concept of the “listening state” or under another name, the governments encourage people’s hope in the time of an uncertain future.
– At the ground level, the pandemic revealed defects of national programs. In particular, after imposing the quarantine regime, the governments were forced to shift towards digital solutions. Accordingly, the crisis has revealed that state programs, primarily in the fields of education, information technologies, and digitalization, do not meet expectations. Thus, in the post-pandemic world, certain actions are anticipated to solve those issues.
As a conclusion, as said by Winston Churchill, “never waste a good crisis”. The pandemic provides humanity with an opportunity to rethink our values and needs, in order to create a new reality, shaped by each of us and all together.
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Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dr.Albina Muratbekova is a research fellow of the Eurasian Research Institute at H.A.Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Albina holds a PhD degree in Oriental Studies from Al Farabi Kazakh National University. She was a Fellow of the EUCACIS PhD support programme, Fudan Fellow 2017, a visiting student of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum at the University of Cambridge along with being an exchange student at Lanzhou University. Previously, she had worked at the international departments of Narxoz and AlmaU universities on the implementation of the internationalization strategy of th