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Someone Else’s Virus

Point of View, 27.03.2020 Research Areas

Until very recently Central Asia remained a blank on the maps showing the spread of Covid-19. In the meantime the virus has appeared there too, and most countries are implementing the same protective measures used elsewhere. But, as Andrea Schmitz observes, Tajikistan is following a different strategy.

It appears paradoxical that Covid-19 was not found in Central Asia until mid-March. The region’s highly mobile societies border directly on China, with which intense bilateral relationships exist. Kazakhstan closed some of its border crossings to China at the end of January, including the major trade hub of Khorgos on the east-west axis of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Travel restrictions were also imposed, with quarantine for travellers from China, and subsequently also from other countries. Kyrgyzstan quickly followed suit, and in the ensuing weeks Tajikistan and Uzbekistan also tightened entry requirements, imposing quarantine on travellers from high-risk countries – or in the case of Turkmenistan closing their borders entirely.

By February the authorities were denying rumours circulating on social media, and on 10 March Kazakhstan warned its population that cases must be expected. Three days later the first Covid-19 case was confirmed. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan reported their own first cases shortly thereafter. In all three countries the official version was that the virus had not been introduced from China, but by travellers from Europe, the United States or Saudi Arabia.

Numbers have risen since in all three, yet remaining relatively low to date. All three countries have declared a state of emergency, with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan taking especially vigorous action. Kazakhstan has placed its two largest cities, Nur-Sultan and Almaty, on lockdown, and Uzbekistan is also taking rigorous action: The Uzbek government has set up a crisis fund of $1 billion to tackle the health and economic impacts and is building hospitals. A website provides relevant information for the public and calls on people to stay at home. Nurseries, schools and universities are closed, public transport in the capital has been shut down.

No worries in Tajikistan

The virus has not yet affected Tajikistan – at least if the official narrative is to be believed. The mosques were closed at the beginning of March but have already reopened. Otherwise life continues as normal. Although there have been reports of panic buying and steep price rises for staples like flour, cooking oil and sugar, the government emanates calm and confidence. The Ministry of Health and Social Protection says the public should not believe rumours about the epidemic, and the president himself urged people not to panic over the “various infections” circulating globally. Corona is not discussed in schools and universities, despite readers’ online comments describing entire school classes coughing. And while all its neighbours cancelled the Persian New Year celebrations (Nowruz) on 20/21 March, Tajikistan marked the date as normal, with mass events and street festivals attended by thousands.

At the same time – apparently just as a precaution – hospitals are being cleared to make space for possible corona patients. A government committee has been charged with planning anti-epidemiological measures but has yet to issue any pronouncements. A number of states, including Germany, are providing or funding the purchase of protective equipment and accessories, first and foremost for medical personnel. In the meantime a certain amount of funding and material must have arrived. But will it be put to good use?

Social “immunisation”

In medical terms Tajikistan is poorly equipped for an epidemic. The health service is in a catastrophic state and conditions in quarantine facilities are more likely to accelerate than slow the spread of the virus. Not all of the donated equipment will reach its intended recipients; some will find its way to pharmacies which will sell it on at inflated prices. But the attitude towards the virus is at least as decisive as the question of provision of basic materials. 

A specific social constellation enables politicians to ignore the possible dangers of an epidemic. The reasons are both demographic and cultural in nature. Tajikistan is a young country with a rapidly growing population. Only 9 percent of the population is over 55 years of age. Chronic conditions – especially cardio-vascular and metabolic diseases – are prevalent among elderly people and the attitude to death is fatalistic, as it is wherever life-prolonging measures are available only to those who can afford them. In Tajikistan that means just a tiny fraction of society. Attitudes to sickness and health are heavily influenced by traditional medicine and religious ideas, and there is no shortage of corresponding recommendations in the social networks, where “corona” is ubiquitous. One of the most popular is the smoke of burning esfand seeds (peganum harmala), which is a widely used traditional remedy, another reciting the surah Ya-Sin. It can be assumed that these recommendations are taken seriously by many Tajiks.

It is, therefore, to be expected that Covid-19 will spread in Tajikistan too. A few cases will probably soon be reported officially, simply for reasons of credibility. But the reported numbers will settle at a low level. And who is going to verify them anyway? In view of the lack of capacity to take meaningful action, making society immune by mobilising cultural resources is an obvious option.

This Point of View was also published at Fairobserver.com.