As of early March, there were no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, dubbed COVID-19, in Central Asia. The countries of the region have taken various steps to prevent the entrance of the virus, with Tajikistan this week banning the citizens of 35 countries from entry and Uzbekistan closing its border with Afghanistan.
As of March 3, according to Johns Hopkins’ impressive dashboard tracking the global spread of the virus which emerged in Wuhan, China, there have been more than 91,000 confirmed cases worldwide. The vast majority — more than 80,000 — have occurred in mainland China, with significant outbreaks in South Korea, Italy and Iran. More than 50 countries have had at least one confirmed case of the virus.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms — which include cough, fever and shortness of breath — could appear anywhere from 2 to 14 days after exposure (based on how similar viruses have behaved).
On Monday, Tajikistan notified local and foreign airlines that it would block the entry of citizens from a list of 35 countries which have had confirmed cases of the coronavirus.
The countries include (with their number of confirmed cases as of March 3 in parentheses: China (80,151), South Korea (5,186), Italy (2,036), Iran (1,501), Japan (274), Spain (120), Singapore (108), United States (105), Kuwait (56), Bahrain (49), Thailand (43), Switzerland (42), the United Kingdom (40), Malaysia (36), Australia (31), Canada (27), Iraq (26), United Arab Emirates (21), Austria (18), Vietnam (16), Sweden (15), Lebanon (13), Israel (12), Croatia (9), Belgium (8), Finland (6), Oman (6), Algeria (5), India (5), the Philippines (3), Egypt (2), Afghanistan (1), Cambodia (1), Nepal (1) and Sri Lanka (1).
Missing from the list, but with more than 100 cases, are France (191) and Germany (165). In addition, states in neighboring regions with recent cases like Georgia (3), Azerbaijan (3) and Armenia (1) are also not on the ban list, yet.
Russia, which recorded its first case on March 2, is not on the list yet either. A spike in cases in Russia would arguably be a dangerous warning for Central Asia. Russia is arguably the most likely route for the virus into the region. With a significant number of Central Asians working in Russia as migrant laborers their return home could introduce the virus into the region. Given that some Central Asian migrant workers are in Russia illegally, they may be less inclined to seek treatment while in Russia, worsening the potential problem.
According to Tajik news outlet Asia Plus, Tajik authorities say that citizens returning from countries on the ban list will be quarantined for two weeks and that all arriving passengers will be checked by a thermal imager for high temperatures.
It stands to reason that the coronavirus may already in Central Asia, but its sufferers are undiagnosed. Given the possibly long incubation of the virus — meaning a person may be inflected but asymptomatic for up to two weeks before showing signs of illness — there is a lag between the presence of the virus and awareness of that presence.
In late January, I took stock of regional responses to the outbreak in China. Most of the countries began screening visitors from China for fevers and other symptoms on arrival. Since then, responses from most regional states have evolved to target more countries as the virus has spread. Kyrgyzstan, which had a closed border with China due to the New Year, extended the closure and introduced mandatory 14-day quarantines for arrivals from Iran, South Korea, Italy and Japan, in addition to arriving Chinese citizens.
Kazakhstan suspended “all forms of passenger travel” to and from China (though not freight) in late January. Efforts to establish quarantine centers in the East Kazakhstan region were met by local protests in late February. Kazakh authorities have instituted a three-tier approach depending on where an individual arrives from. Those arriving from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran are subject to quarantines (those from China in hospitals and those from the rest at home). Those arriving from Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia will not be quarantined but subject to home visits by health workers for two weeks and subsequent medical monitoring check-ins by phone. Individuals arriving from the United States, Vietnam, Germany, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and France will be subject to 24 days of medical monitoring by phone. On March 2, Kazakh President Tokayev announced the cancellation of International Women’s Day celebrations. The holiday is usually marked in the region with much pomp and circumstance, but not this year.
On February 1, Uzbekistan suspended regular flights to and from China, followed by Afghanistan, Iran and Italy as of March 2. Uzbekistan has also closed its border with Afghanistan, according to Afghan officials. Tashkent also postponed a massive investment forum to November because of the virus (and because China is seen as a major potential investor). Travelers are being screened at points of entry, with those who have been in China, South Korea, or Japan being “required to fill out a questionnaire and are monitored while in Uzbekistan (for duration of visit, or up to 14 days),” according to the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, but there is no mandatory quarantine in effect for individuals showing no symptoms.
Tajikistan’s ban on the entry of citizens from 35 countries is the most extensive in the region so far, though we can expect such lists around the region to grow as the virus spreads and more cases are confirmed outside China.
According to an alert from the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe, “Commercial airlines [in Tajikistan] have been instructed to not sell tickets to or board U.S. citizens.” That direction extends to citizens of the other countries on the list. “All travelers from China, South Korea, Iran, and Japan are being placed into a 14-day quarantine. Other travelers, regardless of where they are traveling from, who present with symptoms of COVID-19, including a fever and/or lower respiratory symptoms, are also subject to a 14-day quarantine.”
Note: The above measures and numbers are based on information available as of March 3, 2020 and are likely to evolve further, possibly quite quickly.