While the Covid-19 card is covered in growing red circles, several countries have yet to register a single case of infection, including one of the most repressive states in the world – Turkmenistan. Many experts fear that his government is hiding the truth, which could disrupt attempts to end the pandemic.
As the world battles coronavirus and more and more countries lock up their populations, Turkmenistan is organizing a mass cycling rally on Tuesday to mark World Health Day.
The Central Asian country says it still has no cases of coronavirus. But can we trust the figures provided by a government reputed for censorship?
“The official health statistics of Turkmenistan are notoriously unreliable,” said Professor Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who studied the Turkmen health system.
“For the past decade, they have claimed that they have no people living with HIV / AIDS, an implausible figure. We also know that in the 2000s they suppressed evidence of a series of epidemics, including the plague. “
Many in Turkmenistan are even afraid to suggest that Covid-19 may already be in the country.
“My acquaintance who works in a state agency told me that I should not say that the virus is there or that I have heard of it, otherwise I could be in trouble,” said a resident of the capital. Ashgabat, who asked to remain anonymous. .
The Turkmen authorities are, however, working to combat a possible epidemic.
With United Nations agencies in the country, they are discussing an action plan.
United Nations resident coordinator Elena Panova told the BBC that the plan included country-level coordination, risk communication, case investigation, laboratory diagnostics and other measures.
When I asked her if the UN trusted official figures showing that Turkmenistan had no confirmed cases of Covid-19, Ms. Panova avoided giving a direct answer.
“We are relying on official information because that is what all countries do,” she said. “It’s not about trust because that’s how it works. “
Panova said early measures to restrict travel may have contributed to the absence of confirmed cases.
Turkmenistan closed most of its land border crossings more than a month ago.
He also canceled flights to China and some other countries in early February and began to divert all international flights from the capital to Turkmenabat in the northeast, where a quarantine area has been created.
However, according to several residents, some people were able to bribe their way out of the area and avoid two weeks of isolation in a tent.
Panova said that everyone arriving in the country and those with symptoms were tested for Covid-19. However, it could not give exact figures on the number of tests carried out each day and on the number of test kits in Turkmenistan.
“What we understand when talking to government officials is that they have enough tests. “
But how prepared is the health system for a coronavirus epidemic?
“We don’t know,” admitted Panova. “We were told that they had a certain level of preparation and we have no doubt about it … because the hospitals here are very well equipped. “
“However, if there is an epidemic that is putting enormous pressure on the health care system like in any other country. So, regardless of how much you have prepared, it is usually insufficient. This is why we are already talking to them about getting respirators, as well as other types of equipment. “
There is a certain feeling of awareness of the epidemic among the public. Travel between cities has been restricted and those entering Ashgabat must now have a medical certificate.
Markets and offices are fumigated with smoke from a type of herb called yuzarlik, used in herbal remedies, after President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said burning it would prevent the virus – despite the absence of evidence.
But unlike most countries in the world, daily life in Turkmenistan continues normally.
Cafes and restaurants are open. Crowds gather for weddings. No one wears masks and mass events take place.
It appears that the country denies having recognized the main threat posed by the coronavirus.
Why is this possible? The mass cycle of World Health Day can provide an explanation.
President Berdymukhamedov is the biggest star and the main focus of the annual event.
The image of health is part of his cult of personality. State TV shows him regularly lifting weights in the gym or riding his bike. It is the main driver of health and happiness campaigns in which government employees in identical uniforms do their morning exercises.
The main message of all these events is that the nation is healthy, and therefore happy, thanks to the President.
Berdymukhamedov proclaimed his presidency as “the era of power and happiness”. And an epidemic of Covid-19 could reveal how hollow its messages are.
It is for this reason that the Turkmen government could try to hide an epidemic, even if its citizens are infected.
And that’s what worries Professor McKee.
“We have seen how the Covid-19 infection has moved quickly from China to all parts of the world. In this globalized economy in which we live now, every country is not as safe as the weakest country in the world, “he said.
“Even if other countries manage to control the epidemic, there is a risk of continued spread of infections in countries that have not succeeded. Turkmenistan seems to be another example. “