Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

Tajik President Replaces Health Minister

Now that Tajikistan has admitted the presence of COVID-19 in the country, the bad news will likely only grow.

Catherine Putz
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Tajik President Replaces Health Minister
Credit: Freestock.ca

On May 5, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon signed a decree dismissing Nasim Olimzoda, who had been serving as the country’s health minister since 2017. The announcement referenced a transfer to another job but did not clarify further. 

The director of the Istiqlol medical center in Dushanbe, Jamoliddin Abdullozoda, has reportedly been appointed the new health minister. Abdullozoda served as a surgeon before moving into hospital administration. 

The shuffle comes less than a week after Tajikistan acknowledged its first 15 cases of COVID-19 on April 30

On May 2, a World health Organization (WHO) mission dispatched from Europe arrived in Tajikistan. The mission’s head, Dr. Patrick O’Connor, said on arrival: “Our team has reached Tajikistan, overcoming deployment logistics challenges, but with a strong determination to provide WHO support where it is needed, to the country and the people. We appreciate the efforts of the Tajik authorities and thank the United Nations and other partners for their assistance.”

In an interview with RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, a spokesperson from the WHO in Europe delivered typical responses for an international organization: They rely on local authorities for access and data, and don’t have any mandate to pressure countries into taking certain actions. Indeed, as the cancellation of the mission’s visit to Turkmenistan underscores, the WHO only operates where invited and within limits set by local authorities. 

The unfortunate result, however, is that the WHO’s mere presence can be used by local authorities as a shield from outside criticism. Meanwhile, the WHO won’t be caught saying publicly that a specific country is failing in its efforts — even if it is. In the end, although not intended, the WHO can be used to whitewash a dire situation despite its best intentions to offer assistance. 

As of May 5, Tajik authorities have reported 293 cases and five deaths. Local media is filled with reports of supposed COVID-19 and other suspicious deaths and ill politicians and officials.

As I covered last week, just ahead of Tajikistan’s coming clean about the simple presence of COVID-19, the situation was already far worse than the authorities admitted. Any data provided going forward should be taken with a grain of salt and examined with a critical eye. A Eurasianet report this week further underscores the troubling reality: “Tajikistan plunges from denial to full-blown crisis.” In that report, doctors talk of procuring their own protective equipment, a lack of government support, and earlier directions to keep the identification of possible COVID-19 cases quiet. 

Meanwhile, Tajik President Rahmon has reportedly donated his monthly salary (amount unknown) to a bank account specifically created for funds to fight the coronavirus. According to local media, other top officials have followed suit. Top banking officials have reportedly encouraged employees to do that same. It’s unclear how those funds will be spent, in addition to the influx of aid from abroad. A crisis generates a perfect storm for corruption to flourish: money swiftly flowing in and urgency pulling back precautionary oversight measures. The needs of the moment overwhelm fiscal caution.

Now that Tajikistan has admitted the presence of the virus in the country, the bad news will likely only grow. Dushanbe arguably wasted weeks in denial, defying common sense precautions — such as the cancellation of large gatherings — as the pandemic washed across the world, reaching the Central Asian region in mid-March.