Central Asian States Can’t Hide the Coronavirus Any Longer

Authoritarian states have been downplaying numbers. That won’t last.

Law enforcement officers wearing face masks in Kazakhstan
Law enforcement officers wearing face masks are seen on duty at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan, on March 19. Ruslan Pryanikov/AFP via Getty Images

On March 10, Kazakhstan’s chief doctor made a public announcement. While there were still no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, he said, cases might appear over the next five days. The source of his precision was not explained, and Kazakhs were understandably skeptical. “Everyone here is joking about this,” said one Almaty resident, a Kazakh academic who asked not to be named. “People think we already have those cases but the authorities are hiding facts. Otherwise, it is ridiculous that the country with the longest border with China has no cases.”

Watching from outside, experts on the region were just as incredulous. “Obviously this is impossible,” said Luca Anceschi, senior lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow. Like China, he said, the tightly controlled flow of information in Central Asian states means “we’re not getting any picture. Not even the full picture—no picture at all.”

Three days later, the predictions began to be realized. Over the course of 24 hours, the Kazakhstan Health Ministry released a flurry of announcements through Facebook, confirming what were supposedly the country’s first cases: four in Almaty, the country’s largest city and the closest major metropolis to China, plus two in Nur-Sultan. All of these were citizens who had just returned from Germany, Italy, or the United States, plus one from Moscow. Supposedly, not a single transmission from China. Then, on March 15, Uzbekistan declared its first case: a medical professional who had just flown back from France.

Central Asian states are sandwiched between the outbreak hot spots of Iran and China, but on paper, COVID-19 has barely touched Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. That might seem like a miracle. In reality, it’s cause for concern.

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“As a legacy from the Soviet era, Central Asian governments are more prone to secrecy than transparency on matters of security,” said Kate Mallinson of the London think tank Chatham House. “It is unlikely that many of the governments have enough diagnosis kits. … Corruption is endemic in the health care system in the region, and vast parts of the health care budgets are stolen by officials.”

Certainly, citizens show few signs of trusting the official line. Even before the six cases were announced in Kazakhstan, Almaty’s supermarkets were mobbed, carts piled high with nonperishable food. The cost of face masks shot up to eight times the usual price. In nearby Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon’s personal assurances that there was no need to panic-buy food did little to slow the stockpiling that has left shelves empty.

It doesn’t help that the behavior of these leaders has been at odds with their message that all is well. Despite so few confirmed cases in Kazakhstan, the Health Ministry said its “algorithms” drove the decision to place an additional 1,500 people in quarantine, two-thirds of them in “special hospitals.” Tajikistan has asked people to avoid public gatherings and even mosques. Kyrgyzstan is canceling sporting events and closing schools and universities for three weeks. Immediately after announcing its one case, Uzbekistan imposed an international travel ban on citizens, the closure of schools and universities, and restrictions on public events.

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These steps are all perfectly rational for any country bracing for an outbreak. For one insisting it has zero cases—or even, in Kazakhstan’s case, what is now over a landmass larger than all of Western Europe—it suggests either the response is overblown or the spread has been downplayed.

Not all the confusion is down to scheming, of course: Many nations simply don’t know what to do. As Eurasia expert Filippo Costa Buranelli points out, Dushanbe’s back-and-forth over travel restrictions, where bans were issued and then revoked in succession, left many people “questioning the degree of knowledge and preparation by the authorities in charge of dealing with this crisis.”

Meanwhile, in the highly secretive autocratic country of Turkmenistan, state media and government officials have denied anonymous reports that COVID-19 cases are being treated in a Choganly hospital close to Ashgabat. Authorities refuse to use the word “coronavirus” at all, even as they deploy what Mallinson of Chatham House described as the most aggressive response in the region. The central bank, she said, even canceled the cards of Turkmen citizens stranded in the Beijing airport to make it harder for them to get home. Turkmenistan has good reason to insulate itself: As Mallinson points out, its most competent doctors have moved to Turkey, and rumors abound that you can get out of quarantine by bribing officials. Its depleted health care system simply can’t handle a pandemic.

Rather than address the threat of COVID-19 directly, Ashgabat has stepped up public education initiatives about limiting the spread of infection, announcing that traditional herbal remedies can treat zoonotic diseases. That’s not terribly reassuring coming from a government whose atrocious mismanagement of medical services leads to occasional outbreaks of plague.

The world has already seen how dangerous it can be to suppress information on the spread of COVID-19. In Wuhan, China, where authorities were initially more concerned with silencing whistleblowers than containing an outbreak, tens of thousands of party members and their families came together for mass banquets as part of the annual Two Sessions events in January, creating ideal conditions for the virus to be transmitted. Meanwhile, statistical models suggest that Iran, keen to avoid panic ahead of its legislative elections in February, seriously underreported cases from the outset, claiming that the country had fewer than 100 cases at a time when the real number was probably closer to 23,000. Within days of Tehran announcing its first official case, it was already building mass graves so large they’re visible in zoomed-in satellite imagery.

Before neighboring Afghanistan had a chance to recognize the threat and close the border, COVID-19 cases were already appearing in Herat. In regions where cross-border movement is often illicit, closing down formal ports of entry may matter little: Around 3,000 people are believed to cross between Iran and Afghanistan illegally every day, and the porous border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, a long-standing drug and human trafficking route, is extremely hard to monitor. While Turkmenistan hasn’t owned up to any cases, Mallinson points out that Iran’s delay left it “heavy exposed.”

All in all, it’s a recipe for disaster. “The combination of years of underinvestment in health care, endemic corruption, significant numbers of migrant laborers, and low public trust in governance in Central Asia makes the region extremely vulnerable to mass infection of COVID-19,” Mallinson said.

Whatever the true scale of infections in Central Asia, the economic impacts are already starting to show.

All five countries have struggled to translate a wealth of natural resources, including oil and gas, into resilient economies thanks to civil wars, instability, and ethnic tensions since gaining independence in 1991. While the poverty rate in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has fallen from 70 percent in 2002 to 13 percent and 20 percent respectively, this progress is fragile. Much of it is predicated on Chinese investment in infrastructure as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, which the pandemic now threatens to bring to a halt.

Closing borders also means a sharp drop in cross-border trade. In Kazakhstan, imports from China are down 11 percent from this time last year, leading to a 12 percent reduction in customs duties from Chinese imports. And the pandemic has triggered a drop in the price of oil, Kazakhstan’s main export, which worries some Almaty residents more than the virus itself. It doesn’t help that, in January, Nur-Sultan had to reduce exports to China when dangerous chemicals were detected in an oil pipeline. The strongest economy in Central Asia is now in crisis mode.

For its less affluent neighbors, the outlook is even worse. Exporting natural gas to China accounts for 25 percent of Turkmenistan’s gross domestic product, but Beijing has significantly cut imports amid reduced demand—another casualty of COVID-19. “Even in the absence of officially reported cases, the coronavirus pandemic is already having major economic consequences for Turkmenistan,” warns Mallinson.

Autocratic Central Asian governments are used to being able to control the narrative in their respective countries, but COVID-19 isn’t something that can be contained by a party line. Now that they’re acknowledging confirmed cases, the secret is out—and the prognosis for this precarious region does not look good.

Nathan Paul Southern is an investigative reporter and security specialist. He covers non-traditional security threats, Chinese expansionism, organized crime, and terrorism. Twitter: @NathanPSouthern

Lindsey Kennedy is a journalist and documentary filmmaker covering stories related to development, global security, and abuses of civil and human rights. She is the director of TePonui Media. Twitter: @LindsAKennedy