In early 2020, Suleyman’s* family back home in Turkmenistan was more worried about him — studying abroad — than they were about themselves. The coronavirus pandemic was raging in some places, but had not reached Central Asia, let alone Turkmenistan. Several months later, however, it’s clear that Turkmenistan’s isolation was not enough to spare its people the devastation of COVID-19.
“I just hear more and more about people dying,” Suleyman told The Diplomat. “I go on my Instagram feed and there hasn’t been a single day when I wouldn’t scroll and wouldn’t see someone losing some relatives. It’s grandparents, it’s fathers, it’s aunts and uncles…”
Suleyman’s aunt, a nurse, took ill in July. Her fever, difficulty breathing, and a lost sense of taste are what the world has come to know as common symptoms of COVID-19. On the day his father took his aunt to the hospital, Suleyman’s mother called. She asked Suleyman to stay calm. “You wanted me to let you know if anything happens, but I can’t smell or taste anything myself too,” Suleyman recalled his mother saying.
Suleyman’s mother never developed more serious symptoms, but his aunt died.
Turkmenistan, a Central Asian state rarely covered in depth by international media, is one of just two countries in the entirety of the Eurasian continent to officially report no cases of the novel coronavirus, which emerged in China in late 2019. The other is North Korea.
Even as other states in the region began registering their first cases — Iran (mid-February), Afghanistan (late February), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan (all in mid-March), and Tajikistan (late April) — Ashgabat largely eschewed discussing the pandemic in detail. When the government did mention the pandemic, it was as an external problem.
Early in the pandemic, the Turkmen government took measures aimed at preventing the coronavirus’ entry into the country.
“I knew things weren’t good in Turkmenistan back in early February,” Sonia*, another Turkmen residing abroad, told The Diplomat. “But at the time, I grossly underestimated the effects of the virus.”
Flights from countries with cases were suspended, and by early March all incoming flights were diverted to Turkmenabat — several hundred kilometers and a more than seven hour drive from the capital, Ashgabat. By the end of March, Turkmenistan had suspended all international flights.
This inadvertently stranded many Turkmen out in the world. They would experience the reality of the pandemic wherever they happened to be when the borders closed, preventing them from returning home — a homeland safe from the virus, or so the government continued to claim.
In the early months of the pandemic, from February through June, Suleyman told The Diplomat, Turkmen authorities fined people for wearing masks. The authorities, Suleyman said, considered those who wore masks in public as “trying to create a panic.”
“Probably around early March, around the time when things began closing down in the U.S.,” Sonia said. “I realized that the Turkmen government has no intention of taking the necessary steps to stop the spread of the virus.”
Ashgabat’s attitude toward the pandemic touched off a rumor that the state had banned the word “coronavirus.” It didn’t, but neither did it use the term very much or with the degree of seriousness warranted.
“In Turkmenistan, government handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been thoroughly inadequate,” Luca Anceschi of the University of Glasgow told The Diplomat. Anceschi noted that there is no official “recognition of community infection” in Turkmenistan.
“It is however impossible to obfuscate entirely what is happening inside the country: Government advice on masks, social distancing, and pneumonia infection are telling us that Turkmenistan is acting ‘as if’ it has COVID-19 cases, but without reporting those cases,” Anceschi said.
When a WHO team arrived in the country in early July after months of delays — chalked up to trouble arranging a flight — it recommended that the government “act immediately as if COVID-19 was circulating.”
“Starting in early July, now masks became required,” Suleyman told The Diplomat. Describing the sudden flip in policies from a mask garnering a fine to becoming required at all times, Suleyman wryly commented that the new requirement simply created another opportunity for police to score a bribe. “And [masks are] required everywhere, even if you’re driving in your own car by yourself you must wear a mask — giving another reason for the police to stop you and get some money from you.”
When asked what the government’s stated rationale was for the sudden policy change, Suleyman said that everyone with a Turkmen cellphone got an alert from the government notifying them of the new mask mandate and stressing the need to stay home and maintain social distancing. The stated reason? Dust.
One of the many difficulties generated by the Turkmen government’s inconsistent and obfuscated messaging about the nature and nearness of the pandemic threat is that many Turkmen, Suleyman said, do not seem to be changing their behavior.
“There are still [Turkmen] people out there who don’t think there’s COVID in the country, they just walk around, they don’t care, they still have their weddings because they think everything is safe because that’s what the government says,” Suleyman told The Diplomat. The logic, he said, was “the government says there’s dust but what if we’re inside a building? We can do whatever we want to do because it’s just dust and dust is outside.”
Further complicating the situation are Turkmenistan’s cultural norms: big funerals, big weddings, and heavy social obligations.
“In Turkmenistan we uphold traditions very highly. It’s an important thing. You can’t just say no to your relatives… you don’t just say no to things [like attending funerals and weddings],” Suleyman said.
“You always have to welcome the person, give a handshake and give a hug or whatnot, which are unacceptable [now] but because the government is saying there is no COVID people don’t have a reasonable justification for why they cannot come, why they cannot be in physical contact.”
In essence, because Ashgabat has not admitted the presence of COVID, the social rules of the normal pre-pandemic world still apply.
With the government warning only of dust, Turkmen are left to themselves to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it. In pictures of the scenes at outdoor markets, masks are now on nearly every face, but the crowds are large and closely packed, too.
Social media is an avenue to information for many. Suleyman commented that if he were in Ashgabat now, without easy access to international health resources, “I would most likely trust my social media, like go on Instagram and try to find some reliable sources.”
But not all sources found on Instagram or YouTube are reliable. One Turkmen actress very confidently told her followers that an Italian doctor recommended soaking a rag in alcohol and then wearing that on your face under a mask to kill COVID. (Don’t do that, please, it will not work). “She’s become a meme ever since,” Suleyman said, pointing out that the actress deleted her video after being ridiculed for the bizarre advice.
Meanwhile, the government has also turned to celebrities for its public health announcements. Eldar Ahmedow’s not-quite-banger “Örtük” (“Covering/Mask”) has the singer extolling the importance of wearing a face covering while surrounded by animated masks.
Saglyk, which means “health,” is a non-governmental website that has operated as a resource for health information in the Turkmen language since 2009. The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an expansion of its work into advocacy. In late February, it urged the Turkmen government to prevent the spread of misinformation about the pandemic.
The website publishes questions from readers and strives to provide sound information.
“It is essential to have access to critical, credible, science-based information in a society where it does not exist,” a representative of Saglyk told The Diplomat via email.
Turkmenistan’s bungling of its COVID-19 response is rooted in its ongoing denial of the reality that that the virus is already inside the country. But Ashgabat is not solely responsible.
“This disaster — we know from independent reporters that infection is indeed widespread, and deaths are unfortunately numerous — is however not exclusively the result of Turkmenistan’s peculiar domestic governance,” Anceschi argued.
Suleyman had hoped the WHO’s July mission would trigger a change in Ashgabat, paving a way for the country to admit the virus was present and take action.
“I was very disappointed, to say the least. Because that was one last hope that I had that the government was finally going to admit the presence of COVID,” Suleyman told The Diplomat.
“We are deeply dismayed that WHO spent 10 days in the country and went along with the government’s narrative that ‘there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19,’” noted Saglyk after the visit. The WHO, Saglyk said, had been invited as an honorable guest into the “shiny ‘Turkmen house’ and didn’t bother to look ‘under the rug’ to see the real picture. Instead, the public learns about the virus and epidemiological situation through rumors, not government communications.”
“The Turkmen regime is notoriously uncooperative when it comes to its dealings with international organizations, significantly limiting their capability to influence what is going on in Turkmenistan,” Anceschi explained. “Criticism is usually subjugated to the logic of engagement, which normally guides the agenda of multilateral organizations in Turkmenistan.”
Sonia pointed to this very dynamic in comments to The Diplomat. “Personally, I’d rather have [the WHO] say there is no virus and continue helping with TB [tuberculosis], than acknowledge the lies of the government but get kicked out of the country.”
In the long view, Anceschi noted, “the exceptionality of the COVID pandemic demanded a more decisive action from the international community, and the WHO more in particular.”
“When we will analyze the politics of [the] pandemic in Turkmenistan, it will be very difficult to view in a positive light the contribution made by the WHO to the health of ordinary Turkmen citizens,” he said.
As this piece went to press, the WHO’s Europe division — which had dispatched the July mission — was reportedly planning a second visit. In early August, the division’s head, Hans Kluge, tweeted that he’d met with the head of the WHO and Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. The WHO, he said, “expressed serious concern about” a rise in COVID-negative pneumonia cases and had urged the Turkmen government to allow a WHO team to independently sample COVID-19 tests. Kluge said the Turkmen president “agreed.”
In a follow-up tweet on August 10, Kluge said he’d discussed the next steps for a WHO mission to sample for COVID-19 and conduct tests at WHO reference labs with Turkmenistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Rasit Meredow and Minister of Health Nurmuhammet Amannepesov.
The WHO has not yet responded to a request for comment about the second mission and independent testing of Turkmen samples.
The Turkmen government’s lack of a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, paired with its ignoring the devastation of a hurricane in May, Suleyman said, has ignited protests outside the country like never before and inspired Turkmen like Suleyman to seek avenues to speak up.
“[Turkmenistan has] always been a dictatorship, it’s always been bad,” Suleyman said. “But these lows have never been achieved before.”
“In the ideal world,” he said, “the president would step down and we would have people who actually care about the people take power and try to help the nation… On a more realistic side, the government should acknowledge that we’ve got COVID and it should put more measures in place — first of all, we should help economically those who are suffering the most.”
The restrictions Turkmen authorities have put in place, such as the closure of large bazaars and big malls, have a serious economic impact on individuals, which the government has done nothing to ameliorate. “People who were working there did not get any financial assistance. They just lost their jobs and they cannot make any money,” Suleyman said.
Acknowledgement and action, that’s what Suleyman wants. In the face of a pandemic that has touched nearly every corner of the globe, the existence of the virus is a given. “Despite how powerful you are, there is nothing you can do, it’s a virus… you can’t control it, it’s not like you can tell it to stop and it will stop, or you can bribe it,” Suleyman said.
“It’s how you handle it that’s a reflection of your government and my government is doing a very bad job.”
*Some names in this article have been changed for their protection.
The author would like to thank the Turkmen, both those quoted and those not, who took the time to share their stories.