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Explained: The strange case of Turkmenistan, the country with ‘no COVID-19 cases’

Turkmenistan and Covid-19: Due to strict government controls over the dissemination of information, it is difficult to assess the ground situation.

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata | Updated: July 12, 2020 2:45:01 pm
Turkmenistan, Turkmenistan coronavirus, Turkmenistan coronavirus cases, Turkmenistan news, Indian Express Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the president of Turkmenistan. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, Turkmenistan in Central Asia is among the few countries that have not recorded any case of coronavirus infections. Experts believe it is unlikely that the country has been left untouched by the pandemic and chalk it up to the Turkmen government not being forthcoming about the global health crisis and its impact in the country.

After months of discussions with the country’s government, on July 6, WHO Europe’s regional director Hans Kluge tweeted that a special team was finally on its way to Turkmenistan to assess the situation in the country.

What has been Turkmenistan’s stance on COVID-19?

In early February, Turkmenistan cancelled flights to China and other nations with high rates of COVID-19 infections. It also diverted all incoming international flights to Turkmenabat, the country’s second-largest city where a special quarantine zone was created to check passengers for symptoms. However, according to the BBC, locals had reported that some passengers had been able to bribe their way out of the quarantine zone and avoid the mandatory two-weeks of isolation.

Then, in March, Turkmenistan reportedly closed most of its land borders as well to curb the entry of incoming passengers. Due to strict government controls over the dissemination of information, it is difficult to assess the ground situation in context of COVID-19 in the country.

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In June, the US Embassy in the capital Ashgabat issued a health alert for the country: “While there are no official reports of positive COVID-19 cases in Turkmenistan, the US Embassy has received reports of local citizens with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 undergoing COVID-19 testing and being placed in quarantine in infectious diseases hospitals for up to fourteen days.”

The Turkmenistan government took issue with the US Embassy’s alert and said it was inaccurate.

What has the ground situation been like in Turkmenistan?

Turkmenistan marked World Health Day on April 7 by gathering citizens for mass exercise. The country’s state television broadcaster showed hundreds of people wearing tracksuits cycling in close proximity in Ashgabat. In other images, government employees and medical staff were seen performing stretches inside and outside public buildings.

Experts believe the government’s insistence on holding these mass exercise events despite the public health crises may be because of the Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s own interest in physical fitness and is a major part of his public image.

According to a BBC report, passengers flying into Turkmenistan were being tested for COVID-19 but there were no available figures to show the exact number of tests being conducted. The report suggested that hospitals in the country had also been preparing for potential coronavirus cases and movement between cities in the country has been restricted. For the past few months, public places like cafes and restaurants have been operating as well as gatherings of large crowds during events like weddings and mass public events, without the use of face masks.

Also read | Turkmenistan bans use of the word ‘coronavirus’

Why is WHO’s visit coming only now?

The WHO can only conduct assessment following permission from governments of the countries in question. In April, the WHO indicated that Tajikistan and Turkmenistan had both invited WHO for assessment, but while the organisation’s representatives proceeded to Tajikistan, the visit to Turkmenistan did not materialise due to unspecified reasons.

At that time, experts had suggested that the Turkmen government had been delaying the invitation and may not have even sent an official invitation to WHO that the organisation would require to visit the country. Experts also believe that obfuscation on this front may also be occurring because the government is not keen on highlighting the impact that the coronavirus outbreak may have had on the country’s economy and other socio-political issues.

What is happening now?

Despite the ongoing visit by WHO officials in Turkmenistan, researchers have said that the international organisation has not given any public updates concerning investigations that it may have conducted since the mission’s arrival in the country.

This past week, the government announced that people should wear face masks but claimed it was only to protect them from high levels of dust. The country’s health ministry also issued health advice that recommended rinsing the mouth with salt water and using yuzarlik, a herb used in traditional medicine, recommended by the country’s president.

In April, the president had said that burning yuzarlik would ward off the virus, although scientific evidence does not suggest so. Following the president’s recommendation, reports suggested that markets and offices in the country were being fumigated with smoke from yuzarlik.

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