Compared with other areas of the world affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Central Asian region can be considered relatively fortunate. Perhaps its geographical distance, away from the main centres of the spread of the virus, has played a role here. Ultimately, ‘fortune’ in this case is, to some extent, a consequence of the relatively rapid suppression of the pandemic in neighbouring China.
The countries of Central Asia can be divided into those where the presence of the virus is officially recognised, and those where the authorities claim that the pandemic has not affected them and they do not have a single case of the virus. The latter include Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. However, these claims are not credible. There is unofficial information that says cases have in fact occurred. According to certain information, a ferry that arrived in Turkmenbashi from Azerbaijan carried 10 passengers infected with COVID-19. The Ministry of Health and Social Protection of Tajikistan (as of 6 April), has quarantined 7,041 people arriving from abroad.
In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, the spread of the virus is acknowledged. By the middle of April, the number of cases in Kazakhstan totaled 1,480. In Uzbekistan it was more than 1,200 and in Kyrgyzstan, 489, And these numbers are constantly increasing.
Migrant workers returning from Russia represent a danger. There is no reliable data on the total number of migrants in Russia (including illegal immigrants). Generally, people talk about around 2 million Uzbeks, 640,000 Kyrgyz, 600,000 Tajiks. Russia is trying to return them to their homelands, a task which is far from easy.
Currently, the main measure for preventing COVID-19 is to minimise interaction between people. To this end, Central Asian countries have introduced quarantines, limits on movement between cities, closures of public spaces, etc. Moreover, such measures are even being taken by governments that refuse to acknowledge the presence of those infected within their country. In Turkmenistan, the authorities have closed Ashgabat’s Altyn Asyr bazaar and prohibited entry and exit from the city of Serhetabat, located on the border with Afghanistan. Where there are insufficient medical supplies to prevent the spread of the virus, exotic traditional medicines are sometimes suggested. For example, the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, suggested fumigating one’s premises with burned garmala grass. Such advice, however, was met with great scepticism by Uzbek medical professionals.
Governments are trying to prepare for the further spread of the pandemic as far as their financial capabilities allow. In addition to this, help has begun to arrive from abroad – namely Russia and China.
Specific to the situation in Central Asia is the traditional character of relationships within societies based on family and clan ties. This greatly limits the possibility for desperately needed social distancing and contributes to the spread of the coronavirus.
Moreover, one must take into account the religious factor. Muslims continue to interact in mosques, especially at Friday prayer, although the number of believers present at them has somewhat decreased. Many spiritual authorities have made statements saying that during a pandemic it is especially necessary to protect human life in accordance with the spirit and word of the Quran.
However, there are cases of irresponsible attitudes to the situation. An example of this is the start of Tajikistan’s football championship (although the matches were held in empty stadiums). This is reminiscent of the approach to COVID-19 taken by Belarus, whose president Alexander Lukashenko didn’t cancel sporting events, and even allowed fans to come to matches. Incidentally, like his Turkmen counterpart, he also suggested using folk remedies to fight the pandemic, in particular bacon and alcohol.
It’s still too early to tell the economic consequences – although they will certainly come. It’s also too early to tell the socio-political consequences. Here, one can envisage three scenarios. Firstly, that there will be no fundamental changes and local regimes will remain as they were before the appearance of the virus. Secondly, in the event that a catastrophe on the scale of Italy doesn’t happen, these regimes may even be strengthened in that they can showcase their success and style themselves as ‘saviours of the nation’. Thirdly, if the spread of COVID-19 gathers steam, claims a large number of victims, and causes a total economic collapse in Central Asia, then it might cause intense social upheaval which could be led by radical Islamists. Though, as they say, only time will tell.