The Debate | Opinion | Central Asia

COVID-19 in Kyrgyzstan: National Unity and Frustration 

Amid the pandemic, Kyrgyz are finding grassroots unity but also sharing widespread frustration with the government. 

By Aruuke Uran Kyzy for
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COVID-19 in Kyrgyzstan: National Unity and Frustration 
Credit: Pixabay

Recorded cases of COVID-19 have ballooned in Kyrgyzstan since mid-June. The capital Bishkek, with the highest number of cases, lacks sufficient medical staff and equipment, its hospitals reportedly overflowing. After easing strict lockdown measures in May, the apparent victory over the coronavirus became elusive and fleeting. 

More and more patients are being diagnosed with pneumonia, an infection in the lungs that can induce coughing and difficulty breathing and which can be caused by a variety of triggers, including viruses. Such cases are also now being classified as COVID-19, as it’s the most likely cause at the present time. Previously, deaths from pneumonia and COVID-19 were categorized separately, but now the Kyrgyz government says a sharp increase in hospitalizations from pneumonia make such a distinction no longer practical as the health system is close to cracking.

COVID-19 has significantly challenged Central Asia’s authoritarian leaders. Authoritarian rule, broadly, is maintained by a variety of tools and mechanisms from coercion to co-option, but can rarely survive a major crisis, like a pandemic, without serious consequences. 

Kyrgyz authorities imposed a Soviet military-style lockdown and quarantine measures in an attempt to control the spread. Initially, they decided to announce an emergency across the country. Soldiers equipped with guns and armored vehicles patrolled public spaces and transportation within cities was tightly restricted. Kyrgyz citizens were not allowed to travel outside their towns or even leave their homes for any but the most essential tasks. Public transport and taxis companies were curtailed, as well as most forms of commerce. Curfew (from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.) violations were punished by arrests and fines. The strict lockdown and the turmoil from the pandemic hit the country’s economy hard, leaving many thousands jobless. No assistance was provided for people to feed their families during lockdown.

At the beginning of June, quarantine measures eased, and Kyrgyz citizens returned to their usual way of life, leading to a sharp rise in cases and death rates by mid-June, as the situation worsened. The World Health Organization (WHO) later included Kyrgyzstan in a list of countries with the most rapid increases in cases.

Amid the escalating COVID-19 spread, in a matter of days, hospitals were inundated with pneumonia patients, and many others were dying in their homes as they were unable to obtain medical attention. Public health officials warned of a scarcity of beds, ventilators, and oxygen concentrators in intensive care units.

As in many countries, medical workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic, making up an estimated 15 percent of the overall number of cases in Kyrgyzstan. Authorities mobilized medical students and tutors to replace sick medical staff.

As hospitals are packed, patients resort to self-treatment at home. There are also reports of long lines at pharmacies, shortages of vital drugs, and an increase in prices. Social media has been flooded with photos and videos, pleas for help, and complaints about the conditions in hospitals. Citizens, activists, and journalists are alarmed; the authorities are trying to massage the picture to salvage their reputations.

Amid all this grief, for the first time in a generation, COVID-19 has sparked renewed commitment to a collective unity in the Kyrgyz nation. Provoking a more emotional surge of collective action, the spirit of “we can be heroes” has been ignited in the country in this time of pain. Like all crises in the age of social media, this one offers constant opportunities to bear witness to the fear, pick a side, and do something. 

At the beginning of the outbreak, citizens collected money to purchase protective gear for medical workers, as well as oxygen concentrators and saturation monitors. Volunteers took to social media to offer a helping hand to doctors on the front line. One Telegram channel accrued nearly 108,000 subscribers since it was launched on June 25. The group, which provides practical responses on how to treat mild symptoms, has become so popular that it began receiving messages even from Kazakh users. Another group called the Bishkek Initiative Youth Center started providing oxygen concentrators, a device that supplies pure oxygen and assists the process of breathing. The team has taken their 12 machines, bought with donations, to more than 500 people. As the government coronavirus helpline was struggling to respond to the volume of calls, several doctors began consulting for free through Telegram and WhatsApp. Celebrities and business people have also joined in offering to buy equipment, pay doctors and nurses, and open temporary hospitals.

COVID-19 has made it clear that the country can only win against the virus if it operates as one unified force. Interestingly, this unity has been generated among the public themselves, without expectations of support from the government. 

Meanwhile, widespread corruption continues to be a significant challenge for Kyrgyzstan’s development during the pandemic, as law enforcement institutions still lack sufficient cooperation and resources to enforce adequate anti-corruption laws. During the emergency, the state failed to set and fix prices on medications and medical equipment, benefitting pharmaceutical oligarchs. Evidence from investigative journalists is mounting that personal protective equipment has been purchased at inflated prices. 

Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan requested up to $627.3 million from international donors like the IMF, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the European Union. The Kyrgyz government has decided to spend the funds it has received primarily on filling the state budget, rather than supporting the healthcare system more directly. 

After the first cases of COVID-19 were announced, Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Finance created a special account for the health ministry to collect funds as a part of the economic rescue package. But whether donations from its citizens or loans and grants from an international organization, it is offering no accurate data on where the collected funds are going. Downplaying the COVID-19 crisis and making decisions in an erratic or opaque manner undermined public trust and made it more difficult to implement necessary solutions. The lesson learned is that local solutions that inspire and generate voluntary compliance and cooperation are absolute necessary; ignorant national leadership does not help create such conditions. 

The authorities have kept saying that the situation is under control and the president is busy preparing for the upcoming parliamentary elections, which are scheduled to be held on October 4, 2020. Activists have begun gathering near the parliament building, demanding the elections be postponed. It is imperative to ask how free and fair Kyrgyzstan’s upcoming polls can be amid the chaos and risks of the pandemic. In any case, with thousands of Kyrgyz citizens battling not just the health shocks of the pandemic, but the economic strain, there seems no enthusiasm for the parliamentary elections.

Aruuke Uran Kyzy is a researcher at TRT World Research Centre.