The Turkmen authorities have taken the position of completely denying even the hypothetical possibility that the coronavirus could appear in the country.
About the author: Serdar Aytakov, an Ashgabat-based expert on Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been in keeping with its overall authoritarian approach to domestic and foreign policy challenges: create speculative concepts and present them to the public as populist slogans. Natural disasters, epidemics, and accidents—whether major or minor—are simply impossible in Turkmenistan, and therefore it is taboo to talk about them.
One of the reasons that the authorities are behaving this way may be that the COVID-19 pandemic appeared in Turkmenistan in the middle of January-beginning of February, and the main part of the population fell ill then; society has herd immunity. The majority of deaths with a diagnosis of pneumonia occurred in early-mid-February, and, as traditionally happens, were hidden—both the number of deaths and the real reasons for them.
Forgoing Social Distancing
From the beginning of April, the term “coronavirus” has disappeared in the press. At the same time, sanitation measures in public places have intensified. However, there has been no information campaign about social distancing and other public protective measures. All places where large crowds can gather continue to be open, and public transportation—with large ridership—continues to operate without any precautions. The elderly have not been told to stay home or to avoid crowded places.
Furthermore, the authorities, trying to show that everything is fine, held several national events, where large groups of people gathered, including state workers and students, where they were in quite close proximity to each other. For example, the country’s soccer championship was held as usual.
“Disturbing Public Order” With Masks and Conversations
On public transport and in taxis (where there were provocateurs and stooges), conversations were listened to and, when there was talk “about the coronavirus,” citizens were handed over to the police and transported to the nearest police station where they were fined for “disturbing public order,” and lectured about “preventing panic.” The violators were also fined. At one point, national TV showed how public transport arrived at the end of the line, and public utilities “employees” entered the public transport and treated all surfaces with a solution containing chlorine.
The authorities began forbidding the wearing in public of hygiene and medical masks during the second half of February. People who wore protective masks were stopped by the police and were fined for “disturbing the public order.” The authorities argued that these actions “would suppress panic” among the population. There was no talk of a publicly stated ban on wearing masks in the media or via distributed information leaflets; protective masks were mentioned exclusively in the context of caring for the sick.
To be fair, the Turkmen authorities closed the country’s borders in early-mid February—first with Iran, and then with all neighboring countries. Incoming international flights were moved from Ashgabat to Turkmenabad, a provincial city in the eastern part of the country, where the passengers were subject to all the necessary controls, as identified by the authorities.
All passengers who were suspected of being sick were quarantined, at first for 14, and then for 28, days. They were quarantined in camps made of tents and poorly adapted for living, especially for those who are ill. However, information about the conditions in quarantine, as well as about the quarantine camps themselves, is strictly classified, and only on May 5, the exact number was announced by the authorities.
Towards the end of mid-March, ordinary people, who are not Turkmen citizens but have residence permits, were no longer allowed in the country from abroad. They were sent back to their country of citizenship without any explanation, even though most of them have families, property, and businesses in Turkmenistan. The authorities did not provide any documentation to explain this decision, and those who were deported did not receive any official documentation. In keeping with the government’s secrecy, there were no statistics available about this situation, although according to indirect data, several thousands of people were likely involved.
Stations for taking body temperature were set up at administrative borders inside the country starting in late February and continue to the present. If an elevated temperature is detected, the citizen is taken aside and sent to an isolation center, and from there to an infectious disease clinic where they are quarantined and given treatment. Otherwise, new restrictions on movement inside the country were not introduced.
Freedom of movement inside the country has also been restricted. Local residents report difficulties and arbitrary travel bans when moving across provinces (velayats).
The fate of people who are sick with COVID 19, who have left Turkmenistan is also unclear. The authorities deny their existence and there is no verifiable information about their whereabouts and their health.
Media and Communications
From the beginning of February, state-run mass media (the only media in the country) began informing the population about security measures, which were presented as hygiene recommendations.
Turkish TV broadcasts that talked about the development of the pandemic in Turkey have been significantly limited. This caused additional stress in Turkmen society as over 1.5 million (by some estimates as many as 2.2 million) Turkmens live in Turkey.
The Turkmen authorities not only limited or replaced Turkish TV news, but were completely silent—and continue to be—about the fate of the largest ethnic and legal diaspora of Turkmen citizens.
There has also been noticeable pressure on VPN traffic, which is used by many citizens to contact their loved ones overseas. Many services seemed to be blocked, and it is clear that the authorities have all but maxed out the capacity of their ability to filter online traffic.
The absence of official data and hushing of any sources gives a solid foundation for many rumors, mass fear, and hysteria.
External – Denials
Turkmenistan still refuses to invite experts and employees of the World Health Organization into the country thus sabotaging the country’s international obligations.
This is not news as the country has been known for denying humanitarian and human rights missions and inspections for years. Turkmenistan has been forgoing its international commitments including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, and many others, on a variety of human rights issues.
Until they can operate with real data, international agencies, including the United Nations, for all intents and purposes, are complicit in the lies, being forced to state that, according to the data provided to them by the government, there is no COVID 19 in Turkmenistan.
The official Turkmen authoritarian tactic of denying the existence of the pandemic is the state doctrine and an absolute imperative for the implementation of foreign and domestic policy.
The Turkmen authorities prove unable yet again to communicate with its constituents, to care for the constituents’ lives and wellbeing, and to fulfill the government’s many international commitments.