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Turkmenistan’s Secretive Strongman Remains in Denial About the Pandemic

Berdimuhamedov and other tyrants are jeopardizing efforts to defeat the coronavirus, activists say.

A pharmacy in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat on April 8. Isolated Turkmenistan is one of only a handful of countries to have reported no coronavirus cases, but experts are highly skeptical.
A pharmacy in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat on April 8. Isolated Turkmenistan is one of only a handful of countries to have reported no coronavirus cases, but experts are highly skeptical. Igor Sasin/AFP via Getty Images
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

As leaders around the world encourage their people to keep their distance from others in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has other ideas about how to address the problem: denial and suppression of information. 

Even as major events around the globe, including the 2020 Summer Olympics, have been canceled or postponed, a series of mass sporting events were held on Tuesday in the secretive central Asian nation to mark World Health Day, and the president himself led a 9-mile mass bike ride in the capital, Ashgabat. 

Turkmenistan is one of the few countries to have no reported cases of the coronavirus. But human rights advocates and Turkmen journalists abroad are highly skeptical. As reports emerge of people being taken away by plainclothes police officers for uttering the word “coronavirus” in public, Turkmenistan appears to have invested more efforts in fighting information about the pandemic than the virus itself. 

“The government of Turkmenistan is notorious for providing no data whatsoever or providing data on key issues which is phantasmagorical,” said Rachel Denber, the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. 

Doctors in the country are prohibited from using the word “coronavirus” and have extremely limited access to protective equipment, said Diana Serebryannik, who fled Turkmenistan in 2015 and now leads the human rights organization Rights and Freedoms of Turkmen Citizens. “It would be seen as a confirmation that the disease is in the country,” she said. Her group is in contact with doctors in Turkmenistan who said that some four weeks ago they were banned from using their cell phones in hospitals, in what is thought to be a bid to prevent them from taking photos or videos. 

“There will be lots of death. They will just bury them, and no one will know if they died from coronavirus or any other disease,” Serebryannik said. 

But Berdimuhamedov’s approach, like that of other repressive countries that are failing to face the pandemic adequately, poses a greater danger. As the world grapples with a rapidly spreading infectious disease, global health is only as strong as its weakest link. The ability of the world to overcome COVID-19 is now indelibly tied up with the fate of the Turkmen people and those in other nations where leaders remain in denial about the pandemic. 

A police state already cut off from the world, Turkmenistan rarely makes the news, and when it does, it’s usually to ridicule the president’s bizarre antics: falling off a horse, unveiling a 69-foot gold-leaf statue of himself riding a horse, or writing rap songs about horses. 

True, Turkmenistan’s national airline was quick to cancel flights coming from China and then other Asian countries before gradually closing its borders entirely. Movement within the country has also been heavily restricted. While this may have helped slow the spread of the virus, Farruh Yusupov, the head of the Turkmen news service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), told Foreign Policy that it was inconceivable that the authorities had successfully managed to wall the country off from the pandemic. Last month, anonymous sources at a hospital in Turkmenistan told RFE/RL’s Turkmen service that there were several confirmed cases of the virus at the Choganly hospital on the outskirts of the capital. 

In early March, all inbound international flights were redirected from the capital to the city of Turkmenabat. People with high temperatures, and sometimes those on their flights, were placed in quarantine. But the Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported that some passengers had been able to pay a $100 to $150 bribe to forgo quarantine. 

In 2019, Turkmenistan was rated as the most oppressive environment in the world for journalists by the annual Press Freedom Index put out by Reporters Without Borders—worse even than North Korea. What little information there is about the country comes from news publications in exile, RFE/RL, and human rights organizations, all of which are dependent on sources in the country who put themselves at great risk sharing information with organizations and outlets abroad. It is often not possible to independently verify their claims. 

If there is a substantial outbreak in the country, the health care system is woefully unequipped to cope. Access to ventilators and oxygen required to manage COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is extremely limited, Serebryannik said. 

Other countries and international organizations have made efforts to help Turkmenistan prepare for an outbreak. In March, Russia announced that it had sent 800 testing kits capable of doing 80,000 tests to almost a dozen countries in the region, including Turkmenistan. It’s unclear how many testing kits each country received. On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat announced that the United States would give almost a million dollars in health assistance to help the country prepare and respond to an outbreak. The United Nations resident coordinator in Turkmenistan, Elena Panova, told the BBC that Turkmen authorities were working with U.N. agencies to prepare. 

The Turkmen president is a dentist by training and served as health minister under the previous president, but he doesn’t appear to have brought that experience to bear in his handling of the pandemic. Instead, Berdimuhamedov, who has written several books on herbal medicine, recommended burning the herb harmala, claiming that it could ward off a variety of viruses that are “invisible to the naked eye,” prompting state workers to fumigate schools, government offices, and even cemeteries by burning the plant, Eurasianet reported. “They’re burning it everywhere,” said Ruslan Myatiev, the founder and editor of the exile news site Turkmen.news

Countries around the world have responded to the pandemic by marshaling their respective skills and experience. South Korea used sophisticated technology to quell its outbreak, while the United Kingdom has called up a veritable army of volunteers, evoking the public mobilization seen during World War II. Turkmenistan’s leaders meanwhile have doubled down on their strong suit: secrecy and repression.

State media and the president rarely discuss the virus by name. Instead, they refer to it in the most oblique terms possible, often portraying it as a crisis for the rest of the world but not one that has breached the borders of Turkmenistan. The word “coronavirus” was removed from brochures distributed by the Health Ministry and replaced with references to “acute respiratory infections,” the Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported

“The thought that there are so many people who have been exposed in a country where there is zero information is extremely alarming. Because one of the most important tools in the battle with coronavirus is information,” said Denber of Human Rights Watch. While the Turkmen authorities have been encouraging protective measures such as hand-washing, they haven’t been explaining why they’re advocating for it, Denber said. 

While the specter of a deadly outbreak looms, many Turkmens are struggling to buy food amid shortages and rising prices. “The most pressing issue for Turkmens at the moment is the problem with food. They can’t afford it on the market, but there’s not enough subsidized food,” said Yusupov of RFE/RL. Despite its rich gas reserves, Turkmenistan is no stranger to economic turmoil. This has now been compounded by the loss of remittances from migrant workers, which many families were dependent on. 

Food shortages in the southeastern region of Mary prompted some three dozen women to take to the streets in protest, blocking a highway and marching on the headquarters of the regional administration, RFE/RL reported. Members of the group were each given a 4-pound bag of flour by local officials in a bid to quiet the unrest. 

“I really fear that the government is going to take extreme measures to prevent social unrest,” Denber said.

“If the situation lasts for another half a year, this will shake down the regime significantly. I don’t know if it’s going to lead to regime change, which we should not exclude entirely, but this will change it significantly,” said Myatiev of Turkmen.news. 

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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