In the pantheon of world awareness “holidays,” World Health Day — April 7 — was poignantly timed this year. A pandemic ravages the world, with cases of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, approaching 1.5 million and deaths around the world, as of April 8, surpassing 83,000.
World Health Day 2020, sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), was themed in support of nurses and midwives (and takes place during World Health Week). “7 April 2020 is the day to celebrate the work of nurses and midwives and remind world leaders of the critical role they play in keeping the world healthy,” the WHO’s website stated. “Nurses and other health workers are at the forefront of COVID-19 response – providing high quality, respectful treatment and care, leading community dialogue to address fears and questions and, in some instances, collecting data for clinical studies. Quite simply, without nurses, there would be no response.”
Turkmenistan always celebrates World Health Day as a public holiday. Every year there are scenes of hundreds of cyclists in matching green and white track suits pedaling down Ashgabat’s widest avenues. There are always a number of sporting events organized and plenty of footage aired of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov exercising.
This year the celebrations were different, though how different depends on your source.
State media had its usual chronicle of the president’s outings: Berdy visited the presidential equestrian complex and the Olympic Village. Note: Turkmenistan has never hosted the Olympics and no Turkmen athlete has ever won an Olympic medal — but that’s what the stadium, which hosted the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, is called. At the equestrian complex, the president reportedly rode a majestic Akhal-Teke horse (he’s written a book on them — I have a copy of it) and at the Olympic Village he cycled around a track. State media coverage is positively rhapsodic. There were, according to state media, an organized ride by 3,500 cyclists in the capital and 7,000 more around the country.
But other sources suggest the bike parade didn’t take place as usual. Chronicles of Turkmenistan, an exile-run media site based in Austria, reported that bikes which had been staged a day earlier were removed and the noontime ride never happened. Students, usually mustered early in the morning to hike The Walk of Health path, reported the event cancelled. Nevertheless, Chronicles of Turkmenistan said that on the evening news bike rides were shown happening in the capital.
In his World Health Day address, as reported by state media, Berdimuhamedov did not directly reference the coronavirus pandemic. To date, Turkmenistan has not reported any positive cases of COVID-19 and while the government has discussed the pandemic, it has not done so widely or with much urgency. According to a policy tracker created by the IMF, Turkmenistan has enacted policy responses to the pandemic: “The authorities have adopted a wide range of measures to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in the country, including closure of borders, flight cancellations and rerouting, and mandatory COVID-19 testing for arriving travelers.”
But Turkmenistan’s borders were pretty closed already as all travelers, with the exception of special passport holders and residents of some bordering areas of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, need visas and even in the best of times, they can be difficult to acquire.
In any case, even if the usual mass events didn’t actually occur, state media reporting that all went on as normal sends a poor signal. COVID-19 is a contagious disease, spread through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes — and that infected person does not necessarily have to appear sick at the time to infect others. For that reason, mass gatherings are breeding grounds for an outbreak and many world governments are advising citizens to stay home and stay at least six feet from others when in public.