Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

Is Turkmenistan Nearing a COVID-19 Announcement?

Turkmenistan’s denial of the virus’ presence in the country has inevitably cost lives. Not naming it doesn’t make it go away.

Catherine Putz
This article is free

The Diplomat has removed paywall restrictions on our coverage of the COVID–19 crisis.

Is Turkmenistan Nearing a COVID-19 Announcement?
Credit: Pixabay

The time may be approaching at which Turkmenistan can no longer deny the presence of COVID-19 in the country.

RFE/RL reported this week that two major hospitals in the country have been locked down. Sources said that staff at the Infection Hospital in the capital, Ashgabat, have not been allowed to leave or use their phones to communicate. At a hospital in Lebap province, sources said a nurse had tested positive for the coronavirus, leading to police closing off the hospital.

In reference to the hospital in Ashgabat, RFE/RL reported:

A hospital employee told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that the medical institution was overwhelmed with patients with pneumonia, including people in grave condition, some of whom had died.

As Eurasianet noted, Tajikistan had also reported a surge in pneumonia cases in the weeks before finally admitting that the novel coronavirus had infiltrated the country.

It’s time for a brief science detour: Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs and comes in a variety of types differentiated by what causes the pneumonia to develop: bacterial, viral, fungal, and others. Given that pneumonia can develop as a complication of viral infections, it’s often linked with influenza (“flu”) and now with COVID-19.

COVID-19 is the disease stemming from a novel coronavirus, a virus in the same family as what we call the “common cold” but new and much more dangerous. A person who catches the novel coronavirus may or may not develop symptoms, and those symptoms may or may not include pneumonia, depending on how seriously COVID-19 affects them. You can’t catch pneumonia itself, but if the underlying cause — a virus, for example — is contagious; pneumonia can thus spread.

Why this scientific detour? If Turkmenistan is seeing a large number of pneumonia cases, logic leads to the conclusion that something contagious that attacks the lungs is behind that increase. COVID-19 is all but certainly that cause; indeed, Turkmen doctors seem to know that.

Doctors who spoke to RFE/RL have no doubts that what’s happening is COVID-19, but are not allowed to speak publicly about it.

Another source cited by RFE/RL suggested that Turkmen officials are nearing an official announcement, but the damage has already been done. Ashgabat is stalling, trying to come up with a narrative that maintains the “authoritarian fantasy” that all is well while also somehow acknowledging the deadly virus is inside the house. If and when that announcement comes, it’ll be too little, too late.