As of April 23, there were over 4,500 reported cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, raging around the world in Central Asia. Only three of the five regional states have reported cases: Kyrgyzstan (631), Kazakhstan (2,251), and Uzbekistan (1,716). Given that regional experts are deeply skeptical of denials on the part of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, the full reality of the coronavirus in Central Asia could be significantly worse than the present numbers suggest.
There are other concerns, too, that stretch beyond the present public health crisis.
Curtailing certain rights has formed a core facet of many countries’ response to the pandemic. Stay-at-home-orders and curfews impact individual liberty; quarantines are by default discriminatory, impacting people based on specific but sometimes arbitrarily enforced criteria — where they’d traveled from, who they’ve been in contact with, for instance.
The context in which these rights are clipped in interest of public health differs from state to state. But as Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C., noted with regard to Southeast Asia here at The Diplomat: “A successful response has nothing to do with regime type.”
Democracies (such as Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand) have had measurably successful responses; autocracies like Vietnam have as well. Meanwhile, some democracies have floundered devastatingly, not the least the United States which leads the world in coronavirus cases (843,937 as of April 23). But the assumption in some quarters that an autocratic state is better at pandemic response is misleadingly false.
Democracies, at least, fail in public; autocratic states can more easily conceal their failures, manipulate data and narratives about their responses, and punish those who seek to criticize them. China is a case in point: Your belief in whether Beijing has been successful depends first on whether you take Beijing’s data at face value and second on whether you discount or straight up ignore the state’s early actions to cover up the emerging of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan or its denials of any continued problems.
All of this extends to Central Asia, too. With Kyrgyzstan alone in the democratic column, the region is stocked with autocratic states. Each has its own features and some are in varying stages of reform, but for all, Kyrgyzstan included, autocratic policies and governing habits remain the default.
In a statement today, Human Rights Watch says that “Governments in Central Asia have failed to consistently uphold human rights obligations in their responses to the Covid-19 pandemic by limiting access to information about the spread of the virus and implementing restrictions in discriminatory or arbitrary ways.”
Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan have all at least acknowledged the existence of COVID-19 and, broadly, have attempted to communicate data and policies widely to the public. And while their responses — lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, curfews and quarantines — at face value match what has been put in place in many countries around the world, their authoritarian flair comes out in the punishment for violation of the new rules.
According to HRW, as of April 16, more than 5,000 people had been charged in Kazakhstan with administrative offenses for violating quarantine and 1,626 sentenced to jail-time. As highlighted in a recent Eurasianet report, such data can be misleading.
One activist, Gennady Krestyansky, was sentenced to 10 days of administrative arrest for “undermining the public order during a state of emergency.” As Eurasianet reported it, Krestyansky alleges that he was being punished for “stating during live online broadcasts to his followers that some wealthy and influential individuals were able to get through checkpoints erected around locked-down cities – implying, in other words, that corruption was afoot.”
The details of Krestyansky’s case can’t be verified, but the report fits into a familiar pattern: authorities allege a convenient crime when what’s really going on is dissent or criticism. In the pre-coronavirus pandemic days, the go-to in Kazakhstan was Article 174 of the criminal code, which criminalizes incitement of “social, national, generic, racial, class or religious hatred” — a bottomless grab-bag for silencing an inconvenient individual.
In the time of coronavirus, the charge is “undermining the public order during a state of emergency.”
The above is only one example — HRW highlights many more. But there’s another rights-centered question worth addressing: What happens after the pandemic?
While regime type may not impact immediate success or failure of mitigation measures — many of which necessarily impinge upon personal freedoms in the interest of public health — it arguably will influence what happens after the pandemic passes.
In the United States, the Trump administration’s pandemic response will be put on de facto public trial in the upcoming November presidential election. In addition, one can reasonably expect congressional hearings and investigations into the government’s handling of the pandemic response in the aftermath. Journalists are also free to investigate and report on government actions and misconduct even in a time of crisis and one can expect significant investigative reports to emerge once the dust of disease settles.
It’s more difficult to envision any legislature in Central Asia (except perhaps the Kyrgyz, and only maybe) seriously and deeply probing the government’s pandemic responses in retrospect. Journalists remain under serious pressure across the region and investigative reporting is difficult and dangerous (though absolutely necessary). The region’s next big election — this fall in Tajikistan — will most certainly not be a referendum on Dushanbe’s (lack of) pandemic response.
None of this is to say that most regional governments aren’t doing what they believe necessary to combat a threat unlike any contemporary world governments have faced. But when the pandemic passes, what lessons will be taken? Will policing powers enhanced during the crisis recede with the virus? Will the state’s actions be up for judgement and state abuses open to punishment? Will rights lost to the pandemic be restored?