After weeks of denial, on 30 April 2020 Tajikistan authorities finally confirmed the presence of coronavirus infected patients in the country with 10 cases registered in the north and five in the capital Dushanbe.[i] Central Asia’s Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan had reported the first COVID-19 cases in mid-March but existence of any cases in their territory was denied by Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Now, Turkmenistan is the only exception in the region with no formal confirmations though organizations in Europe have reported about the spread of COVID-19 like symptoms there.[ii] The government claim is also contested in social media debates. The number of cases has escalated rapidly in Tajikistan over the period, climbing to above 6,000 infected persons and more than 50 deaths as on July 3, 2020.[iii] From initial denial, the situation soon changed into a major public health crisis. The geographical extent of COVID-19 indicates that the virus was already spreading in the country for some time before it was formally confirmed by the authorities.
Initially, the administration probably could not gauge the enormity of the situation and its consequences. While neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan had called off Nowruz celebrations scheduled for March 20/21 following reports of disease, Tajikistan went ahead with strong public participation. The main celebrations were held at the Khuj and central stadium in the country’s north where about 12,000 people participated, including school children and university students.[iv] At the event, President Emomali Rahmon said: “Keeping homes clean and observing sanitary standards is one of the finest qualities of our people. And especially in situations when all kinds of infectious diseases are spreading fast.” He added that “Our health is, first and foremost, in our own hands.”[v]
China, where the coronavirus first surfaced, and all other neighbours of landlocked Tajikistan have been hit by the pandemic. Experts were sceptical about the denial of COVID-19 cases in the country by authorities.[vi] In mid-April, deaths were reported in northern Tajikistan in ‘strange cases’ but authorities denied that these had any links with the coronavirus.[vii] Most of such cases were termed as pneumonia infections. Tajikistan finally confirmed corona virus cases in April end just before the visit of a WHO team to the country, which was held in the first week of May.[viii]The WHO team visited the country to meet authorities and experts to understand the risks, and develop the required response mechanisms.
The possible economic impact could be one of the reasons that Tajikistan was unwilling to acknowledge the presence of COVID-19 in the country. It is a relatively small economy (US$ 7.5 billion GDP in 2018: World Bank) in the region with a population of about 9 million people. A substantial portion of the country's economy is dependent on external remittances, particularly from Russia. In 2018 Tajikistan was among the world’s top five remittance-receiving countries, amounting to about 31 per cent of GDP.[ix] The Russian economy faces the twin pressure of sanctions and low energy prices. The pandemic has increased difficulties and with consequential impact on migrants from Tajikistan and elsewhere in the region. The return of Tajik migrants from Russia and Kazakhstan had already gone up in February and March 2020.[x] Some migrants in Russia had also contracted the virus.[xi]
To deal with the impact of the coronavirus Tajikistan has been engaging with regional and international leaders for support. It received assistance from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the region and from other countries, including India, Germany and China. Kazakhstan sent 5,000 tonnes of flour worth more than US$ 3 million.[xii] Uzbekistan has sent medical experts and has provided medicines, medical equipment including 10 ventilators and food items in batches.[xiii]China sent a 14-member medical team of doctors specializing in respiratory and infectious diseases, intensive care, nursing and traditional medicine to share its experience with Tajik doctors in diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 patients. It has also sent testing kits, ventilators, personal protective equipment to Tajikistan.[xiv] Germany has committed euro 1 million for Tajikistan for the purchase of protective and medical equipment, and training to combat the spread of the coronavirus.[xv] India also reached out to Tajikistan and sent 4.6 tons of medicines to support combating the coronavirus,[xvi] including hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol tablets.
The World Bank approved US$ 11.3 million in grant financing from the International Development Association for the Tajikistan Emergency COVID-19 Project. The project aims to prepare for and respond effectively to the health and social risks of the pandemic.[xvii] It will also help in augmenting the country's healthcare infrastructure by establishing around 100 new Intensive Care Units (ICUs), testing kits, laboratory reagents and personal protective equipment.[xviii] Money will be spent on generating awareness about the disease and emergency cash transfers will be made especially to food-insecure families with young children. Tajikistan has also sought the International Monetary Fund’s emergency financing.[xix] It will receive US$ 240 million from the Fund.
It is difficult to understand what purpose the delayed confirmation of COVID-19 cases in the country served. However, one of the unintended consequences of the denial is that Tajikistan is still battling the pandemic’s fallout while some of its neighbours are on the path of recovery and have started easing lockdown measures taken. Uzbekistan eased some restrictions and has marked different areas as red, yellow and green levels to restart economic activity in phases. Kyrgyzstan also allowed some businesses to resume activities from mid-May onward. Rising cases of infection in Tajikistan will remain a cause of concern for the region and will lead to continued restrictions on the movement of people thereby impeding the regional economic recovery.
Tajikistan lost out time and opportunity to control the escalation of cases, leading the country to a health crisis, due to its prolonged denial of COVID-19 infections. The reason could have been economic concerns, but the Tajik government gradually realized that to deal with the disease it needs to mobilise resources, including from outside. Later, the government authorities confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country hoping to receive international financial, medical and material assistance. Their assessment turned out to be correct and productive. Since the confirmation of coronavirus infections by authorities in Tajikistan, neighbours, regional stakeholders and international organizations have provided valuable support to Tajikistan to deal with the crisis.
*Dr. Athar Zafar is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer : The views expressed are personal.
[i]khovar.tj “ХАБАРИ ФАВРӢ: ДарТоҷикистонҳодисаҳоитасдиқшудаибемориисироятии CОVID-19 азнамунаҳоибиологииҳодисаҳоигумонбарбақайдгирифташуд”, 30 April 2020, https://khovar.tj/2020/04/vmyhabari-favr-dar-to-ikiston-odisai-tasdi-shudai-bemorii-siroyatii-covid-19-az-namuna-oi-biologii-odisa-oi-gumonbar-ba-ajd-girifta-shud/, accessed 15 May 2020
[ii] Human Rights Watch, “Turkmenistan Denies Apparent Covid-19 Outbreak,” 27 June 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/06/27/turkmenistan-denies-apparent-covid-19-outbreak, accessed 1 July 2020
[iii] World Health Organization, “Coronavirus disease(COVID-19) Situation Report – 163,” 3 July 2020, https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200703-covid-19-sitrep-165.pdf?sfvrsn=b27a772e_2, accessed 4 July 2020
[iv]Eurasianet, "Tajikistan: Feast in the time of coronavirus," 23 March 2020, https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-feast-in-the-time-of-coronavirus, accessed 18 April 2020
[v]Asia-Plus, "President inaugurates a number of economic and social facilities in Sughd province," 27 March 2020, https://www.asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/power/20200327/president-inaugurates-a-number-of-economic-and-social-facilities-in-sughd-province, accessed 16 April 2020
[vi] Tasha Wibawa, "Countries with no reported cases of coronavirus may be due to censorship, or absence of disease: expert,"Australian Broadcasting Corporation,16 April 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-16/countries-with-no-reported-cases-of-coronavirus/12144204, accessed 17May 2020
[vii]Eurasianet, "Tajikistan: The mysterious deaths raising suspicion," 14 April 2020, https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-the-mysterious-deaths-raising-suspicion, accessed 18 April 2020
[viii]World Health Organization, “WHO/Europe COVID-19 mission arrives in Tajikistan: International experts to support country’s response to the pandemic,” 2 May 2020, http://www.euro.who.int/en/media-centre/sections/press-releases/2020/whoeurope-covid-19-mission-arrives-in-tajikistan-international-experts-to-support-countrys-response-to-the-pandemic, accessed 21 May 2020
[ix] UN IOM, " World Migration Report 2020," International Organization for Migration, 2019, p.36, https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/wmr_2020.pdf, accessed 20 April 2020
[x]NazaraliPirnazarov, "Tajikistan says migrants returning from Russia, Kazakhstan," Reuters, 17 April 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-tajikistan-economy/tajikistan-says-migrants-returning-from-russia-kazakhstan-idUSKBN21Z19H, accessed 18 April 2020
[xi] Patrick Reevell, Coronavirus lockdown leaves hundreds of thousands of migrants without food in Russia.” abcNews, 31 May 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/International/coronavirus-lockdown-leaves-hundreds-thousands-migrants-food-russia/story?id=70650667, accessed 4 June 2020
[xii]EURACTIV.com, “Kazakhstan provides humanitarian aid to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,” 16 April 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/central-asia/news/kazakhstan-provides-humanitarian-aid-to-kyrgyzstan-tajikistan/, accessed 21 June 2020
[xiii]KUN.UZ, “Uzbekistan sends another batch of humanitarian aid to Tajikistan,” 26 May 2020, https://kun.uz/en/news/2020/05/26/uzbekistan-sends-another-batch-of-humanitarian-aid-to-tajikistan, accessed 21 June 2020
[xiv]Huaxia, “Chinese medical experts arrive in Tajikistan to assist anti-epidemic efforts,” Xinhua, 24 May 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-05/24/c_139084348.htm, accessed 21 June 2020
[xv]Asia-Plus, “Germany allocates 1 million Euro to support Tajikistan’s efforts to prevent the spreading of coronavirus,” 20 March 2020, https://asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/society/20200320/germany-allocates-1-million-euro-to-support-tajikistans-efforts-to-prevent-the-spreading-of-coronavirus, accessed 21 June 2020
[xvi]Asia-Plus, “COVID-19: India sends 4.6 tons of medicines to Tajikistan,” 29 May 2020, https://www.asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/society/20200529/covid-19-india-sends-46-tons-of-medicines-to-tajikistan, accessed 21 June 2020
[xvii]The World Bank, "Tajikistan Gets World Bank Financing to Respond to COVID-19 Pandemic," 2 April 2020, Press Release No: 2020/ECA/69, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/04/02/tajikistan-gets-world-bank-financing-to-respond-to-covid-19-pandemic, accessed 16 April 2020
[xix]OlzhasAuyezov, "Tajikistan seeks IMF emergency assistance – Fund," Reuters, 15 April 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/imf-centralasia/tajikistan-seeks-imf-emergency-assistance-fund-idUSL5N2C35SN, accessed 16 April2020