Among the Central Asian states, Kazakhstan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been distinguished, in part, by financial support provided to citizens. Soon after the declaration of a state of emergency in the country on March 15, the government announced that social benefits would be paid to those who lost income due to the mandated lockdown. This happy news plunged applicants into a confusing quest to receive the promised benefits.
According to the Kazakh Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, initially the payment was meant to target only employees of medium, small, and micro-businesses who lost wages due to the quarantine. The benefit was extended to other categories, including individual entrepreneurs and self-employed workers. The guidelines on receiving the payments, however, left potential applicants in deep confusion and led them into seeking support on social media.
On Facebook, a public group created by one of the millions of confused applicants quickly became a platform for the exchange of experiences on the way to getting the cherished 42,500 Kazakh tenge (about $100). Initially, applications involved a demanding list of necessary documents, including proof of the loss of income and exhaustive application forms which had to be filled in, scanned, and then sent electronically. The forms could only be accessed via an online public services portal.
That is where the exciting journey for applicants began.
Signing into the portal required a so-called “electronic digital signature” – a personalized computer file, in essence an electronic key, for accessing public services remotely. A majority of the applicants did not have the file since its necessity before the quarantine was minimal – public services were physically available in person at service centers. As a result, confusion over how to get “the keys” resulted in numerous online video tutorials. Those who were able to had to acquire IT skills overnight; many among the elder generations and those without internet access were left helpless.
Moreover, self-employed claimants were instructed to make a one-time payment, a so-called “single aggregate payment” (2,651 tenge for city residents or 1,325 tenge for village residents) if they wanted to get the 42,500 tenge. This was meant to compensate for tax payments, pension fund transfers, and medical insurance payments that self-employed residents were otherwise avoiding. The payment requirement caused suspicions among the population as to whether it would secure the transfer of the 42,500 tenge. Ironic memes saying “new financial pyramid: invest 2,651 – get 42,500” quickly spread on social media.
Realizing the complexity of the application process, two alternative application platforms were created – the 42500.enbek.kz website and a Telegram messenger bot. The required information now included only personal details and the bank account number for a money transfer. However, in the hope of increasing their chances of getting the payment, people began applying several times via all the available platforms – this further complicated the processing of applications. The website was heavily overloaded due to high demand – one had to be lucky to be able to access it. The support hotline “1414” was rarely available. Fake Telegram bots swiftly flourished, furthering adding to the confusion. Instead of the three processing days promised by the ministry, the wait for payment turned into weeks for the majority of applicants. According to official data, around 37 percent of applications were rejected, mostly due to incorrect personal details. These applicants had a chance to reapply, with further weeks of delay. Meanwhile, discontent about the complicated process and confusion grew on social media. People with disadvantaged backgrounds complained about the absence of any income due to the situation and inability to provide for their households.
In the meantime, those who did not have bank accounts to receive payments flocked into bank branches to open accounts or post offices to receive the money in cash. Violating social distancing norms, people in suburban areas of southern Kazakhstan accumulated in large groups while queuing for services. Due to the intense atmosphere, psychological pressure, and high demand, in some cases small fights broke out in the lines of people waiting.
Panic among the population has further spread due to the government’s statement regarding the prosecution of scammers. The Ministry of Labor claimed that some applicants who did not lose their income had managed to secure financial aid illegally due to the simplification of the application package and “softened” checks from the government’s side. These groups of people were threatened that if the money was not returned, legal measures would be triggered against them. The law stipulates enormous fines and even potential imprisonment of up to four years for fraud. Frightened by such threats, even legal applicants became confused as to whether they should rush into returning the money they’d received or not.
Luckily for the citizens who applied before April 16, they were promised a second payment for the second month of the state of emergency without any additional applications needed. According to a statement from the Ministry on May 13, 4.5 million citizens received the first payment. The transfers of second payments are still being processed with major delays leaving people in uncertainty whether they will receive the money or not. The numbers of those paid look impressive as advertised by the government. However, the limbo in which many applicants have found themselves in the past two months on their quest to receive government aid has been largely overlooked.
Anastassiya Fershtey is a graduate student at the University of Glasgow. She specializes in social developments in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.