December in Central Asia: dust and delusion in the time of corona2 min read
December editorial. On 13 November 2020, a new statue dedicated to President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s favorite dog breed was unveiled. This new artifice has attracted the attention of Internet users across the globe, who immediately started posting jokes about the statue online. What has not received as much attention is the ongoing crisis in the country caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Despite rising infection rates in the countries bordering Turkmenistan, the government has yet to report a single case of the virus.
The first cracks in the facade began to appear in February when news outlets, such as Radio Azatlyk, reported that those returning to Turkmenistan from China were being placed under quarantine and medical supervision. While authorities made no official report of these cases and claimed that the country was free of the coronavirus, the government began to place new restrictions on travel to prevent the spread of the virus and stocking up on medical supplies in July, before WHO Europe officials visited to assess the situation in the country. The Turkmen government came up with creative arguments to explain the reasoning behind some of their new policies, advising residents to wear masks due to increased dust particles in the air. The president also began to publicly praise the healing properties of the yuzarlik plant, which he purports is effective at fighting off infectious diseases, like the novel coronavirus.
One would think that these exposures might force Turkmenistan’s government to come clean about the current situation in the country, but instead state-controlled media has recently doubled-down on its claims that the country is free of COVID-19. On 26 November, Gundogar News, a state funded media outlet, posted an article that claimed, “trying to intimidate us with an unknown virus, drive us into holes, deprive us of air, immerse us in a nervous breakdown and depression … this is undoubtedly the main goal of our opponents.” It is unclear reading the article who the opponents the author is referring to are, but other theories have been released by the media outlet claiming that the virus is being overblown by Western pharmaceutical companies, which might suggest this is what the author was alluding to.
It has become clear that no matter how many cases appear in the country, officials are unwilling to admit there are cases of coronavirus within their borders, which will likely exacerbate the issue in the coming months. The release of several vaccines recently have given some hope that there will soon be an end to this ongoing crisis, but there is no way to know how long it will take for them to appear in the region. In the meantime, Turkmenistan’s officials continue to lie to their citizens about the power of herbs and the threat of dust.