“We want to believe that this virus will spare us, Inshallah,“ a Facebook user in Tajikistan writes in an appeal to the authorities. “Please reach out to us! We need to see and hear you so we can believe in tomorrow!”
To date, the authorities of Tajikistan insist that the coronavirus, which has infected over one million people in over 200 countries around the world, has thus far not entered the territory of the country. Galina Perfilyeva, the representative of the World Health Organization in Tajikistan, stated on 1 April that 700 tests had been conducted and they had not revealed anyone who was infected with the virus.
However, many people in Tajikistan wonder if it is really true that Tajikistan has managed to shield itself from the virus, or if it has entered the country undetected? Is the virus spreading right now and will it flare up and overwhelm the already under-resourced health system? It is known that the numbers of confirmed infections are rising fast in the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan. China, where the virus originated, is an important trade partner. Until Tajikistan closed its borders, (or at least the official check points) and halted most air travel, labour migrants regularly commuted to and from Russia and other Central Asian states; and there was lively interaction with European and other countries that are now severely affected.
Several civil society activists told IPHR that they know of people who are seriously ill with respiratory diseases or who recently died but were never tested for coronavirus. One activist told IPHR: “I know of three women who died of severe pneumonia and high temperature in March. No tests were conducted on them, either before they died or afterwards.“ Another activist reported the case of a woman in Dushanbe who was suffering from a fever and cough but who was told by medical personnel at the outpatient clinic that they had received orders not to admit any new patients during the Navruz (spring) celebrations.
One medical doctor told IPHR: “A health official came to our hospital and said, ’If you send me anyone for testing and the virus isn’t confirmed, then the doctor who caused the panic will be in trouble.“ A civil society activist confirmed that “many doctors record only a diagnosis of common illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchitis when they see symptoms that could in fact be caused by the virus But the patients are not tested and the doctors are frightened.“
The authorities have not been inactive. They have taken a series of preventive measures. On 19 March the Minister of Health issued a decree ordering that medical and sanitary facilities be made ready, and plans were adopted to get the personnel ready and prepare the necessary protective and medical equipment to meet the crisis.
On 27 March media reports stated that a telephone hotline (511) had been set up for citizens. Facebook posts indicate that it usually functions and people can receive general information about the virus. The Ministry of Health also gives recommendations on how to protect oneself on its website and information about the worldwide pandemia is regularly updated.
Over 6000 people who arrived from abroad in recent weeks have been placed in quarantine for two weeks.
On 31 March the Ministry of Justice Department responsible for overseeing the penitentiary system issued an instruction temporarily suspending family visits to prisoners. IPHR learnt that several lawyers are still able to visit their clients in pre- and post-trial facilities and that parcels from relatives are passed on to inmates. The Head of the Department stated that designated places had been allocated within the penitentiary system for the quarantine of prisoners with respiratory symptoms.
On 2 April the independent news agency Asia Plus reported that the hospital Istiklol, the largest in Dushanbe, is ready to receive coronavirus patients.
Nevertheless, people in Tajikistan are left wondering: Can we trust the government to handle the crisis well, if and when it reaches us, and take the necessary steps to protect the population?
And there are many other questions that preoccupy people: Is there really sufficient evidence that strict social distancing, school closures and further measures imposed in other countries would be premature in Tajikistan? Are the measures the government has announed in recent days such as disinfecting public transport, mosques, schools, courts and other government buildings with high customer turnout sufficient? And can we trust that they are conducted diligently? Are the health authorities doing enough to equip hospitals for what might lie ahead, and is the government committed to countering the economic consequences of the crisis?
Parents wonder if it is right to continue to send their children to school. Tajikistan is one of very few countries in the world that has not closed its schools. A lawyer from Dushanbe told IPHR: “Children whose parents decide not to let them attend school risk being excluded altogether. Parents can be fined the equivalent of between 17 and 30 USD, according to the Administrative Code and the Law on Parental Responsibility.“
Some people placed into quarantine after returning to Tajikistan from abroad reported that they were not thoroughly examined for symptoms. Doctors, other medical and service personnel in regular contact with those in quarantine rarely wear masks. Some people reportedly pulled strings and managed to leave the airport directly upon arrival. There were also cases where relatives picked up people from quarantine. When such information was made public, the authorities reacted. In one such case a woman was returned to quarantine together with all the relatives who had picked her up.
Many medical doctors say that they have no special protective clothing. Because the Ministry of Health has not supplied hospitals with desinfectants and masks, medical personnel buy these themselves.
Citizens clearly have more questions than government officials have answered so far.
When independent media outlets try to bridge the gap and reach out to officials for clarification, they often hit a wall. This is a long-standing pattern in Tajikistan. During field research in Tajikistan in November 2019 IPHR researchers interviewed several journalists and representatives from independent media outlets. All expressed concern at the persistent reluctance of government officials to respond to their requests for information. Continuing this practice during a pandemic is potentially toxic. The civil society activists and others whom IPHR interviewed for this reports asked not to mention their names for fear of reprisals. The impossibility of conducting an informed and open debate reinforces an atmosphere in which rumours and fear spread faster than any virus.
Radio Ozodi, the Tajik Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), is one of very few media outlets in Tajikistan that question government policies and aim at fostering an informed public debate. In a letter to Sirojiddin Muhriddin, the Foreign Minister of Tajikistan, dated 30 March 2020, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly deplored attempts by the Tajikistani authorities to interfere with Radio Ozodi’s coverage of the coronavirus situation. “Officials with the Health Ministry, the Anti-Epidemic Commission, and your own ministry have refused to speak with Ozodi correspondents (…) and have excluded them from press briefings.“ Radio Ozodi continues to have problems with the accreditation of its staff and last week the Radio’s website was again blocked.
At this critical time, it is of utmost importance that the Tajikistani authorities communicate openly and honestly with their citizens and the media, and ensure transparency when sharing information about the evolving situation, their analysis and the policies in place to respond to the crisis. This will help combat rumours and false information and ensure that people take the necessary protective measures and do not cede to panic.
As citizens in Tajikistan wait for more information and hope for the best, many have started to take matters into their own hands. For example, the civil society organization Office of Civil Freedoms has launched the campaign “Help us to help“ which seeks donations to provide poor families and the elderly with essential food and hygiene products.