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By definition, a pandemic reaches everyone. There is information that the coronavirus reached Turkmenistan, one of the most isolated and closed states in the world. In recent years, this gas-rich desert state has suffered a protracted economic downturn, leaving observers wondering how Turkmenistan's public services will cope with a true humanitarian emergency.
By March 18, Turkmenistan is one of the few countries in Eurasia that does not have data on the authorized Johns Hopkins digital map of confirmed cases of coronavirus. This could be due to the notorious difficulty in obtaining accurate information from the country, where the information is strictly controlled and the media censorship is pervasive.
True to form, the Turkmen bureaucracy remains silent about the bad news on the horizon. They have barely mentioned the word “coronavirus,” which has not appeared on any government website after a quick mention on March 5. That same day, citing medical sources in the capital Ashgabat, the RFE / RL radio service in Turkmenistan wrote that there are probably at least two confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country.
Coronavirus cases in Turkmenistan are not unlikely. The country shares a northern border with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, both countries reported their first cases in March and declared a national emergency on March 16. Turkmenistan also shares 1,148 kilometers of southern border with Iran, hit by the crisis, with more than 17,000 known cases and almost 1,200 deaths to date. Like the rest of its Central Asian neighbors, Turkmenistan also maintains trade relations with Turkey and China, while Turkmen citizens study and work in Russia, where cases are multiplying rapidly.
Raise the drawbridge
The first known official mention of a public health threat in Turkmenistan came after the New Year.
The Turkmen Ministry of Foreign Affairs website states that on January 8, the country's Ministry of Health issued an order to identify the symptoms and treatment of “unknown lung diseases.” An extraordinary committee convened on January 20 to discuss preventive measures, such as improving the state of the country's hospitals, installing quarantine zones in border areas, and conducting unspecified medical examinations of all people arriving from affected countries.
On February 25, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov held a special meeting where he discussed the need to challenge viruses and other “health threats.” Predictably, Turkmen government officials have not responded to RFE / RL's questions about coronavirus cases in the country, or to any other international news agency. There appear to be some signs of readiness: The American news service also reports that government ministries are increasingly taking the temperature of their employees. Suspicious cases are sent to the Chongaly Center for Infectious Diseases, although the number of cases there remains unknown. As of March 4, the pools in Ashgabat were closed and the marriages and other massive activities were canceled or postponed.
According to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, an independent website that follows the country's political and social developments, the few tourist resorts in Turkmenistan such as the Ahvaz on the Caspian Sea coast were closed in mid-March and since at least February, the Ministry of Health has distributed brochures throughout the capital that include information regarding the symptoms of the coronavirus. However, according to Fergana News, an independent news website specializing in Central Asia, authorities began distributing a new version of these brochures in March, omitting any mention of the name of the new virus.
However, the strictest measure appears to be the one taken against those traveling abroad. On February 3, Turkmenistan closed its border with Iran, followed by its borders with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, the Turkmen authorities requested the return of Turkmen citizens living and working in the affected countries; More than 200 Turkmen citizens returned from China in February and are in quarantine in Lebap province.
Turkmenistan Airlines ceased all flights to and from China on February 29, followed by various other destinations. Representatives of the airline told the state-run TurkmenPortal media outlet that the remaining flights from Turkmenistan continue to take off from Ashgabat, but are returning to the eastern city of Türkmenabat where medical centers were installed at the airport.
On March 15, Fergana News reported that the airline, which is facing financial problems, was no longer able to compensate passengers for canceled flights. Several large international airlines such as TurkishAirlines, China Southern, Belavia, and FlyDubai also temporarily canceled their flights to Turkmenistan.
Disturbingly, on March 13 Chronicles of Turkmenistan journalists reported that some passengers who arrived in Türkmenabat from abroad were able to leave the mandatory quarantine after a few minutes after paying bribes ranging from $ 100 to $ 800.
Meanwhile, the health services continue to praise the measures taken by President Berdymukhamedov. On March 5, Health Minister Nurmukhammet Amannepesov credited his approach given that there are no registered cases of coronavirus in the country.
Turkmenistan's most notable response to the pandemic is an herbal remedy proposed by President Berdymukhamedov. In a speech to the cabinet of ministers on March 13, the president commented that his book on medicinal plants includes practical advice, emphasizing that pepper can be useful to fight infections just like harmala or common rue. The country could well learn from its “wise ancestors”, declared the president, who promotes the health benefits of using harmala as incense:
Dürli görnüşli, göze görünmeýän wiruslaryň adam bedenine aralaşmagynyň öňüni almakda ýüzärlik tüssesiniň netijelidigini köp asyrlaryň durmuş tejribesi subut etdi. Şunuň bilen baglylykda, milli Liderimiz halkymyzyň ýüzärlik tütetmek däbiniň häzirki döwürde dünýäde emele gelen çylşyrymly pursatlarda aýratyn ähmiýetlidigine ünsi çek
Many centuries of experience show that light smoke can effectively prevent the spread of various invisible viruses to the human body. In this regard, our leader emphasized that our people's tradition of burning herbs is especially important in these difficult times, in light of the events that are taking place in the world today.
Berdymukhamedov, who was Turkmenistan's Minister of Health between 1997 and 2007, has written several health care books, one on horses and one on tea. Her 2013 book details the medicinal properties of more than 150 native plants in the arid country.
According to this recent video produced by the state-run Turkmenistan Today, harmala, the “cure for thousands of ailments”, plays a fundamental role in Turkmen culture. Burning desert grass to release its fragrant smoke, he continues, is an element of any grand celebration, from weddings to the handover of a new home.
Media reports suggest that the president's advice is already under strict observation. According to Orient TV, which advertises itself as the “first television station in Turkmenistan,” the grass was burned at a meeting between United Nations representatives and Turkmen government officials on March 14. Although attendees at the Ashgabat meeting cleaned their hands with antiseptic solution, the handshakes continued as normal.
It may be easy for those watching from afar to simply list this herbal remedy as one of President Berdymukhamedov's eccentricities, but the Chronicles of Turkmenistan suggests that it could be a smokescreen, both ways, due to the lack of adequate medical care in the country. . The state media continues to report with joy the latest initiatives of the president. Despite the World Health Organization's heightened advice against mass public activities, Turkmenistan continues preparations for the Nouruz, or spring festival, on March 20.