By RFE RL
By Bruce Pannier*
(RFE/RL) — Turkmenistan’s government claims it has successfully prevented anyone in the country from being infected with the coronavirus that is raging around the world.
But that is not what a growing number of people inside the country say.
Here’s a look at what “success” in fighting the spread of the coronavirus looks like inside Turkmenistan:
“In the intensive care unit [of a hospital in Ashgabat] 50 people die on average every day.”
“On [July 19], doctors warned there were no more plastic [body] bags…. Bodies are [since] wrapped in chlorine-soaked cloth.”
That is what two people in Ashgabat told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, about the situation in different hospitals in the Turkmen capital.
The first person was a patient at an Ashgabat hospital who was recently discharged but observed what was happening during his/her stay.
“They bring people who are ill with COVID-19 there,” the person said. “People are constantly arriving. The hospital is full of patients [and] all are diagnosed with pneumonia.”
The person continued, saying there are not enough vehicles to take all the bodies to the morgue.
The comment about the insufficient number of body bags was reported by an RFE/RL correspondent in Ashgabat.
The reporter added that when there were body bags, authorities handed over bodies to relatives with a warning not to open the bag and to leave the body in the bag for burial.
Another Ashgabat correspondent said they knew at least 20 people who were in hospitals in the capital who had coronavirus symptoms.
‘Full Of Patients’
One RFE/RL correspondent in Ashgabat said there were too many patients for hospitals to handle and one of the local children’s hospitals had started taking patients with COVID-19 symptoms, although officially these are patients with signs of pneumonia.
An Azatlyk correspondent in the eastern city of Turkmenabat, described a similar situation.
“The general hospital is full of patients with the coronavirus,” the reporter said. “Earlier it was only one wing that was a quarantined area, but now the whole clinic is closed off. There are about 700 beds and all of them are occupied, there is nowhere to send new patients.”
Turkmenabat is the capital of Lebap Province and the independent website Turkmen.news reported on July 20 that the head of the province’s Faryab district died recently of pneumonia.
Hasan Metkuliev was 55 years old and, as of July 14, was telling people he was in good health. But Metkuliev died four days later and his family received his body wrapped in a plastic body bag for immediate burial.
Azatlyk confirmed Metkuliev’s death, and that his wife and deputy district chief had also been infected and were in the hospital.
Yagshygeldy Kakaev, who for many years oversaw Turkmenistan’s key oil and gas sector and was one of the few trusted officials to regularly represent the country abroad, reportedly died of pneumonia on July 8.
Turkish diplomat Kemal Uchkun died in an Ashgabat hospital, officially of heart failure, but when he entered the hospital he was treated for pneumonia and some believe he actually died from COVID-19.
And most recently, there is unconfirmed information that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s brother-in-law, Annanazar Rejepov, has died of pneumonia and that his wife, Durdynabat, is seriously ill.
Turkmen authorities managed to guide a team from the World Health Organization (WHO) to sites where there was allegedly no evidence of the coronavirus in early July.
The fact that the visit was delayed by more than two months as Turkmen officials dragged out the process of issuing permission for the WHO mission to come did not escape the attention of those watching Turkmenistan, many of whom wondered if the government was using the time to cleanse sites the WHO team would visit.
At a press conference on July 15, WHO mission chief Catherine Smallwood made reference in her remarks to “reports of increased cases of acute respiratory disease or pneumonia of unknown cause.”
The head of Turkmenistan’s Department for the Surveillance of Dangerous Diseases, Dr. Gurbangul Ovliyagulova, also spoke at the press briefing and denied there was any pneumonia of unknown cause in Turkmenistan.
There is already ample evidence that the coronavirus is in Turkmenistan.
The increasing number of people, including medical personnel, who are willing to speak to foreign media outlets under condition of anonymity, of course, about the strange and sudden number of illnesses in the country shows the frustration within the population with the government’s statements that there is no health crisis.
The most baffling thing about the government’s repeated denials about the coronavirus being in the country is what exactly is the point of denying it.
According to Worldometers.info, the coronavirus is affecting 213 countries and territories around the world.
There is no shame in admitting the virus is also in your country. Almost every country has done so, including all of Turkmenistan’s neighbors (even a long-reluctant Tajikistan).
There is no prize that comes with a claim of being coronavirus-free.
But there are huge losses, chiefly for the people in a country where the government has failed to take adequate measures to stem the spread of the virus and now finds its medical facilities overloaded with patients and ill-prepared in terms of medicine, equipment, and medical personnel to deal with a massive health crisis.
Azatlyk correspondents report that rumors about the virus are everywhere, fueling panic among the public.
And because the Turkmen government denies there is a problem, it receives very little of the outside financial and material help the country desperately needs.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service contributed to this report
- Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.