A new briefing paper prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) examines the human rights impact of Turkmenistan’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The paper documents how the authorities of this closed country have responded to the pandemic with denial, lack of transparency and attempts to cover up the truth as part of a long-term pattern of government censorship and suppression of information on issues of public interest.
After the president called for making “every effort” to prevent Covid-19 from reaching Turkmenistan, the government appeared bent on demonstrating the absence of Covid-19 in the country at any cost.
Thus, through mid-July 2020, the government continued to insist that there were no cases of Covid-19 infections in the country, although independent, exile-based sources reported about a growing number of such cases. By June, there was evidence of a widening outbreak of Covid-19, with independent sources reporting about hospitals being strained by the influx of people with acute respiratory conditions classified as pneumonia, as well as increasing mortality rates due to these conditions. Those believed to have contracted and died of Covid-19 include medical professionals.
Independent sources have also reported about doctors and other medical workers being pressured to help cover up the Covid-19 outbreak in the country by disguising Covid-19 cases and refraining from discussing and sharing information about them. The authorities have sought to stifle discussion among residents on Covid-19, including by detaining and intimidating people speaking about Covid-19 related issues in public places. National state-controlled media outlets have only provided limited, selective coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic, communicating state-endorsed messages and praising the measures taken by the government to combat the Coronavirus. At the same time, the authorities have continued their attempts to discredit and obstruct the work of independent Turkmenistan-covering outlets based abroad.
Available information suggests that, during the first few months of the global pandemic, the authorities failed to enforce adequate safety protocols for the treatment of patients with Covid-19 symptoms and did not provide medical workers with adequate protection against this disease. Independent sources reported about the lack of protective clothing and equipment, with medical workers sometimes having to buy or sew face masks and other means of protection themselves. More systematic use of adequate protective equipment appeared to begin only in the summer when the number of suspected Covid-19 cases increased and a mission from the World Health Organization (WHO) was set to arrive to look into the Covid-19 situation in the country.
The government was slow in facilitating the WHO mission: while the WHO announced plans to visit Turkmenistan in late April 2020, the mission took place only in the first half of July, with five WHO experts spending ten days in the country. According to information from TIHR and other independent sources, the authorities sought to prevent the WHO experts from learning the truth about Covid-19 in the country by removing all patients with symptoms indicative of this disease from the facilities the experts were expected to visit. At the end of their visit, the WHO experts commended the measures taken by the government to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and concluded that the national health care system had the “necessary capacity” to counter this disease. The mission team also told journalists that they had “not seen a large number” of patients with respiratory conditions in the hospitals they visited, explaining that they had been taken to facilities that they had requested to visit in advance. However, the experts also said that they were “extremely concerned” about the many reports of “an increasing number of acute respiratory infections or pneumonia of unknown origin” in the country and called on the authorities to step up measures to identify, test, isolate and treat patients with such symptoms and to share test samples with the WHO for re-testing.
While applauded by the WHO experts at the time of their mission, the authorities’ approach to Covid-19 prevention has been conflicting and inconsistent. When the global pandemic began, the authorities took some steps to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus in Turkmenistan, such as by limiting movements across and within the national borders and by promoting hygiene-related measures. The authorities also used more questionable tactics such as measuring the body temperature of residents at various checkpoints, with those found to have an elevated temperature risking to be forcibly placed under quarantine. Moreover, in order to supposedly “prevent panic” in relation to the pandemic, the authorities implemented measures that directly contradicted the objective of countering the spread of Covid-19. For example, police stopped and intimidated people using face masks in the street, and the authorities organised regime-praising mass events instead of promoting social distancing.
In connection with the WHO mission, when the number of suspected Covid-19 cases was on the rise, the authorities introduced previously unprecedented lockdown and preventive measures. Among others, they enforced a new requirement to use face masks in public places and charged police with monitoring compliance with it. However, instead of explaining the real purpose of these measures, the authorities referred to the purported surge in dust in the air. At this time, the authorities also claimed that national research had shown that viruses may be “carried by air currents”, and thus appeared to suggest that Covid-19 may be found to have reached Turkmenistan without this meaning that the government had failed in its efforts to prevent this from happening.
***The new IPHR-TIHR briefing paper has been prepared as part of an initiative of IPHR and its partners to monitor and document human rights protection during the Covid-19 pandemic in Central Asia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.***