Turkmenistan says it has not had a single case of Covid-19. Activists say it’s a lie
Or at least that’s what the secret, authoritarian government of the Central Asian country claims.
But independent organizations, journalists and activists outside Turkmenistan say there is evidence the country is fighting a third wave that is overwhelming hospitals and killing dozens – and warns the president is downplaying virus threat deadly in order to maintain its public image.
Myatiev said he had verified all recorded deaths with medical records and x-rays, revealing severe lung damage and consistent medical treatment with coronavirus victims.
“Instead of accepting it and cooperating with the international community, Turkmenistan has decided to put its head in the sand,” Myatiev said.
The Turkmen government did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
How it went
As Covid-19 spread around the world in early 2020, Turkmenistan insisted there were no cases, even though border countries reported outbreaks.
“You look at what’s going on in other countries in the region and how different could Turkmenistan be? Said Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.
“It was at least 40 degrees Celsius outside (104 degrees Fahrenheit) – not a typical flu season,” he said.
At the time, the situation was out of control, according to Myatiev. The government has advised citizens to take bizarre public health measures, such as eating a special type of spicy soup.
As late as Tuesday, President Berdymukhamedov said the efforts of the global community to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic were “insufficient”, although he did not mention the situation inside his own country.
“The pandemic has exposed serious systemic failures in the international response to this challenge,” he said.
“Turkmenistan is on fire”
Despite Berdymukhamedov’s claims that his country is Covid-free, the reality in Turkmenistan is radically different, according to journalists and independent activists.
Diana Serebryannik, director of the Europe-based exiles group Rights and Freedoms of Turkmen citizens, said her organization had heard from contacts in the country that hospitals across the country were currently struggling to cope with the influx of cases.
Serebryannik said that Turkmen doctors in his organization who were now living abroad were in contact with their former colleagues in the country, allowing them to find out the real situation and provide advice.
She said doctors in Turkmenistan told her oxygen and ventilators were hard to come by in the country, treatment was expensive, and deaths from the virus could number in the thousands.
“Turkmenistan is burning, it is burning with Covid … Sometimes they don’t even accept patients at the hospital, they just send them home,” she said.
According to Serebryannik, the official cause of death in these cases is not listed as Covid-19 or even pneumonia – instead, medical certificates record a separate condition, such as a heart attack, she said.
The Asian Affairs newspaper said Uchkun passed away on July 7. His official cause of death was heart failure.
Undermine the pink image
Many authoritarian governments around the world have announced their Covid-19 epidemics and received international aid, including China, the first affected country.
So why is Turkmenistan insisting until it has seen a single case yet?
Myatiev and Serebryannik said it was up to President Berdymukhamedov who, as a dentist by profession and former health minister, had focused on effective governance of the well-being of his people – at least in principle.
Serebryannik said Berdymukhamedov, 64, wanted to appear as a savior of the country and an impressive world leader, keeping Covid-19 on the outside.
“Turkmenistan is a country where everything in the garden looks pink… you have these marbles, advanced equipment (health facilities) equipped with equipment from Germany, France, Japan, whatever,” the journalist said. Myatiev.
Admitting to the presence of a deadly virus would undermine the idealized image the president created and leave Berdymukhamedov open to criticism – and potentially to be held accountable.
“It would be someone’s failure, someone should take responsibility for it and who has the ultimate say for it? The president,” Myatiev said.
There is no indication yet that Turkmenistan is preparing to reverse its stance and admit to having Covid-19 cases inside the country, but Serebryannik has said she believes the government should eventually do so.
She said there had been “too many deaths”.
Denber of Human Rights Watch said international organizations interacting with Turkmenistan, including the WHO, have a duty to be honest with the world about the situation inside the country.
“At some point you have to say at what cost do you protect this presence (in the country)? Are the steps you take to protect your relationship… undermine your core business? ” she said.
Denber said that in a global pandemic, with many epidemics linked across international borders, countries have an obligation to provide accurate testing and correct public information.
“We are all interconnected,” she said. “When one of us fails, we all fail.”