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Post-Soviet country claims that during the entire pandemic there was not a single case of COVID-19: they do not really believe it

In the nearly two years since the start of the pandemic, not a single case of COVID-19 has been reported in Turkmenistan. At least, this is what the secretive authoritarian government of this country claims. The publication told about this in more detail. CNN.

Photo: Shutterstock

According to a review of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organization, Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic of nearly 6 million people, is one of at least five countries that has not reported a single case of COVID-19. Three of them are isolated islands in the Pacific Ocean, and the fourth is North Korea.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who has ruled since 2006, dismissed reports of COVID-19 in the country as "fake" and stated in his address to the United Nations (UN) that the response to the pandemic should not be "politicized."

But independent organizations, journalists and activists outside of Turkmenistan have cited evidence that the country is fighting a third wave that is taking over hospitals and killing dozens of people. They warn that the president is downplaying the threat of the deadly virus in order to save his face in front of the public.

Ruslan Myatiev, the exiled Turkmenistan editor of the Netherlands-based independent news organization Turkmenskie Novosti, said he personally collected the names of more than 60 people he said have died from COVID-19 domestically, including teachers, artists and doctors.

According to Myatiev, he checked all registered deaths using medical records and X-rays, which revealed serious damage to the lungs, as well as treatment in accordance with the coronavirus treatment protocol.

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“Instead of accepting this and cooperating with the international community, Turkmenistan decided to stick its head in the sand,” concluded the disgraced editor.

How it happened

COVID-19 spread around the world in early 2020, with Turkmenistan insisting it has no cases, even though neighboring countries have reported sharp outbreaks.

Iran, with which Turkmenistan shares a long land border, reported one of the world's largest outbreaks of COVID-19, with nearly 5,5 million cases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

"You look at what is happening in other countries of the region, and how different the situation in Turkmenistan can be?" Rachel Denber wondered.

All flights to Turkmenistan are currently suspended and only Turkmen citizens are allowed to enter the country, according to the websites of the UK and Australian Foreign Ministries.

Myatiev said his sources in Turkmenistan began contacting him about cases around May 2020, around the same time that COVID-19 spread around the world. He said the first reports he received spoke of "a strange flu-like lung disease" that many people suffer from.

“It was at least 40 degrees Celsius outside - an unusual flu season,” he said.

In June 2020, the US Embassy in Ashgabat, the capital, issued a warning in response to "reports from local residents of symptoms consistent with COVID-19 being tested for the virus" and are being quarantined for up to 14 days.

The government of Turkmenistan immediately called this statement "fake news."

The WHO mission to Turkmenistan in July 2020 did not confirm the presence of coronavirus infection in the country, but said it was concerned about "the increase in the number of cases of acute respiratory infection and pneumonia."

One WHO staff member noted that Turkmenistan should act "as if COVID-19 circulates in the country."

According to Myatiev, by that time the situation had already got out of control. The government has advised citizens to take bizarre public health measures, such as eating a certain type of spicy soup.

In January of this year, Turkmenistan announced that it had approved the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine for use in the country. Then, in June, the World Bank agreed to provide the government of Turkmenistan with a $ 20 million loan, mainly for medical facilities and construction, as part of a program to “prevent, detect and respond to the threat posed by COVID-19.”

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Soon, President Berdymukhamedov said that the efforts of the international community to combat the COVID-19 pandemic were "insufficient", although he did not mention the situation inside his country.

“The pandemic has exposed serious systemic deficiencies in the international response to this challenge,” he said.

"Turkmenistan on fire"

Despite Berdymukhamedov's claims that his country is free of coronavirus, the reality inside Turkmenistan, according to independent journalists and activists, is completely different.

Diana Serebryannik, director of the European-based group of exiles, Rights and Freedoms of Citizens of Turkmenistan, said her organization heard from acquaintances in the country that hospitals are struggling to cope with the influx of cases.

Serebryannik said that the Turkmen doctors from her organization, who now live abroad, kept in touch with their former colleagues in the country, which allowed them to find out the real situation.

She said doctors in Turkmenistan complained to her that oxygen and ventilators were difficult to find in the country, treatment was expensive, and deaths from the virus could number in the thousands.

“Turkmenistan is on fire, COVID-19 is on fire ... Sometimes they don't even admit patients to the hospital, they just send them home,” she said indignantly.

According to Serebryannik, the official cause of death in these cases is not listed as COVID-19 or even pneumonia - instead, a separate condition, such as a heart attack, is recorded in medical certificates.

According to the non-profit organization Human Rights Watch, when medical workers tried to talk about reality on the ground, they were silenced.

Freedom of the press and independent control are not permitted domestically. Turkmenistan was ranked 178 out of 180 countries and territories in the Reporters Without Borders 2021 World Press Freedom Index, just above North Korea and Eritrea.

According to Human Rights Watch, Turkmen citizens who peacefully criticize the government have faced harsh punishments, including reports of torture and disappearances.

Foreign residents have also been affected by the denial of the coronavirus by the government of Turkmenistan. In July 2020, Turkish diplomat Kemal Uchkun was admitted to a hospital in Ashgabat with symptoms similar to COVID-19, but was denied permission to evacuate to his home country.

X-rays sent to Turkish hospitals by Uchkun's wife confirmed the presence of COVID-19, according to the BBC.

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Asian Affairs magazine reported that Uchkun passed away on July 7. The official cause of his death was heart failure.

Most recently, Myatiev said he had confirmed the death of a 61-year-old Russian language and literature teacher who, according to Turkmenskie Novosti, had been in hospital since August.

Undermining the rosy picture

Several authoritarian governments around the world have announced COVID-19 outbreaks and received international assistance, including China.

So why is Turkmenistan so persistent that it has not yet confirmed a single case?

Both Myatiev and Serebryannik said this was due to President Berdymukhamedov, who, as a dentist by profession and a former minister of health, paid great attention to effectively managing the welfare of his people - at least in general terms.

Serebryannik said 64-year-old Berdymukhamedov wanted to appear as the country's savior and an impressive world leader who has kept COVID-19 out of his state.

“Turkmenistan is a country where everything looks rosy ... we have marble, modern medical institutions with German, French, Japanese equipment, ”said journalist Myatiev.

Recognizing the presence of a deadly virus will undermine the idealized image created by the president and leave Berdymukhamedov open to criticism, which may well bring him to justice.

“It will be someone's failure, someone will have to bear responsibility for it, and to whom will all the claims be? To the president, ”Myatiev is convinced.

So far, there are no signs that Turkmenistan is preparing to change its position and admit the presence of COVID-19 cases inside the country, but Serebryannik believes that the government will eventually have to do so.

She refers to the fact that there have already been "too many deaths."

Human Rights Watch's Denber said that international organizations working with Turkmenistan, including WHO, have a duty to be honest with the world about the domestic situation.

“At some point you have to say at what cost you protect your presence in the country? Are the measures you are taking to protect your relationship undermining your core mission? - she emphasized.

Denber said that in a global pandemic, with many outbreaks linked across international borders, countries are required to provide accurate tests and correct public information.

“We are all interconnected,” she summed up. "When one of us fails, in the end we all fail."

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