Since the outbreak began nearly two years ago, Turkmenistan has not reported a single Covid-19 case.
In any case, that’s what the secretive, authoritarian government of central Asia claims. According to research by the World Health Organization and Johns Hopkins University, Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic inhabited by nearly 6 million people, has not reported a single coronavirus case since 1998. In addition to those islands in the Pacific, there is North Korea, a tightly controlled hermit state.
How It Unfolded
Turkish President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has dismissed Covid-19 reports in Turkmenistan as “fake” and said in an address to the United Nations that the response to the pandemic should not be “politicized.” Turkmen organizations, journalists, and activists say a third wave is sweeping hospitals and killing dozens of people in the country, and warn that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is downplaying the threat of the deadly disease to keep his public image intact.
A Turkmenistani exile, Ruslan Myatiev, says he has collected the names of more than 60 Turkmens believed to have died of Covid-19 in the country. His list includes teachers, artists, and doctors. X-rays and health records have verified all recorded deaths, revealing severe lung damage and medical treatment consistent with Coronavirus deaths, Myatiev said.
According to Myatiev, Turkmenistan didn’t collaborate with the international community rather accept Covid-19 and work with it. Even as neighboring countries reported mounting outbreaks of the disease in 2020, Turkmenistan maintained there were none. In Turkmenistan, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported approximately 5.5 million Covid-19 infections. ‘How could Turkmenistan possibly differ from other countries in the region?’, says Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.
Turkmenistan is currently closed to all flights, and only Turkmen citizens may enter. This information comes from the websites of the British and Australian foreign ministries. Around May 2020, Myatiev said he was contacted by Turkmen sources about cases related to Covid-19. Several people were afflicted with strange lung disease, flu-like, he said from the first messages he received.
The temperature outside had risen to at least 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) – not the average season for flu. US embassy officials in the capital, Ashgabat, issued a health alert in June 2020 following reports that local citizens were showing signs of Covid-19. Turkmenistan’s government branded the report as fake news. The World Health Organization reported in July 2020 that there had been no recent reports of coronavirus infections in Turkmenistan. However, an official of the WHO stated that Turkmenistan must act as if the virus had been spreading.
Myatiev said that by then, the situation was out of control. A Russian coronavirus vaccine called Sputnik V was approved for use in Turkmenistan in January of this year. Secondly, in June, the World Bank lent Turkmenistan $20 million, mainly to build health facilities and address the threat of Covid-19. Despite mentioning the situation within his country, President Berdymukhamedov said Tuesday the global community’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was “insufficient.” “The pandemic has exposed serious structural weaknesses in our international response to the challenge,” he stated.
‘Turkmenistan is burning’
Turkmenistan’s reality is far different from Berdymukhamedov’s claims that the country is Covid-free, independent journalists report. Ms. Diana Serebryannik says her organization heard from contacts in the country that hospitals in Turkmenistan are currently struggling to cope with the influx of cases. Those Turkmen doctors now living outside the country, Serebryannik said, are in touch with their former colleagues and can provide support to those in need. The doctor said the disease is difficult to treat in Turkmenistan, oxygen is hard to find, and there could be thousands of deaths from it.
According to Human Rights Watch, health workers have been pressured into silence when they attempted to speak out about conditions on the ground. Turkmenistan’s Press Freedom Index ranked it 178th out of 180 countries and territories, just below North Korea and Eritrea. Human Rights Watch reported that Turkish citizens opposing the government peacefully have been tortured and detained. International residents of Turkmenistan have also suffered as a result of the government’s denial of the Coronavirus.
The Journal of Asian Affairs reports that Turkish diplomat Kemal Uchkun was being treated in Ashgabat with symptoms similar to those of Covid in July 2020. Turkish hospitals confirmed the presence of Covid-19 after receiving X-rays from Uchkun’s wife. Uchkun died on July 7th, as reported in the journal Asian Affairs. Officially, he died from heart failure.
Undermining The Rosy Picture
Several nations across the globe, including China, which was among the earliest countries to become infected by Covid-19, have announced that they are experiencing outbreaks and are receiving international assistance. Turkmenistan insists there has yet to be a single case. Why is that so? As dentists and former health ministers, Myatiev and Serebryannik agreed it was down to President Berdymukhamedov who had placed great importance on effective regulation of his people – at least in principle. Keeping Covid-19 out as part of Berdymukhamedov’s effort to seem like a savior to the country and a world leader.
“It’s a place where everything is rosy in Turkmenistan. You have your marble, state-of-the-art (health facilities) with German equipment, French equipment, Japanese equipment, whatever the case may be,” Journalist Myatiev said. “Who has the final word over that? Who should bear responsibility for that?” Turkish authorities have not yet announced their support for accepting Covid-19 cases within their borders, but Serebryannik said she believes the authorities will do so eventually. There have just been “too many deaths,” she said.
Denber said that international organizations that work with Turkmenistan, including WHO, should be outspoken about the reality inside the country. “At a certain point (in the country), what is the cost of protecting that presence? How does protecting your relationship undermine your core mission?” she said. “We’re all interconnected,” said Denber during a keynote speech on the importance of accurate testing and accurate information in a global pandemic. “We are connected, wherever we live. The failure of one of us is the failure of all.”