Turkmenistan took swift measures at the beginning of the pandemic, including completely closing its borders. Included in the restrictions were required mask wearing, cancelled flights, restricted travel—not only abroad, but also between cities within the country, and closing of stores and non-essential businesses.
In early January 2022, Turkmenistan’s health ministry announced the continuation of restrictions until mid-February 2022. While these restrictions are similar to those of other nations around the world, they seemingly contradict the official Turkmen government’s message about COVID—the country has yet to even report one case of the virus. Instead of informing the Turkmen people of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government claims to its people that deadly illnesses are coming from hot winds and dust from neighboring countries. When the government does mention the health situation of the country, it does so in general terms, avoiding the words “COVID” and “coronavirus.” As such, the government is severely limiting information about COVID-19 that could be useful in protecting the public. It is nearly impossible for the Turkmen people to know the extent of the real pandemic, as Turkmen people rarely encounter any information that contradicts official government responses since the government has an iron grip on the Internet and flow of information into the country. Yet, because of the seemingly high prevalence of COVID-19 across the country, stories have in fact leaked that appear to contradict the official government message, which still refuses to admit to the presence of coronavirus. The deliberate mismanagement of the pandemic in Turkmenistan has not only further harmed the health of the public, but has the potential to create issues in the economy and stability of the country.
While the World Health Organization has visited the country and has cast significant doubt on the COVID-free claim, it also has been complicit in allowing the Turkmen government to espouse this harmful rhetoric. This is especially evident since in 2020, Turkish diplomat Kemal Uckun died from COVID-19 while working in Turkmenistan. The hospital refused to admit his COVID diagnosis and treated him with antibiotics instead. A few weeks later, Britain’s ambassador to Turkmenistan, Hugh Philpott, contracted the virus. Further proof of coronavirus in the country appears in its prisons, where in one prison alone, there were reports of over 200 inmates in critical condition. Turkmen opposition media networks based outside of Turkmenistan have also reported that Turkmenistan has undergone at least three waves of the virus, with the new Omicron variant recently detected. However, the government still has yet to report any of this to the public or international community. As reports of foreign officials and Turkmen prisoners contracting COVID-19 emerge, the Turkmen government finds itself facing increased international pressure to reveal the presence of COVID-19 in the country. If they do not, damage in the public sphere will continue. As a result, this obstruction of information has the potential to create a vicious cycle of deteriorating conditions whilst the government leads the public further astray from the reality.
Rather than revealing the truth about COVID-19 to its public, the Turkmen government continues to insist the illnesses reported are severe cases of pneumonia. As these apparent ‘pneumonia’ cases increased, the government began to recommend that individuals who fall ill should report to a medical facility immediately, and since July 2020 has required all eligible citizens to receive the coronavirus vaccine — even while still denying to the public the existence of the virus in the country. The situation is difficult to fully grasp because even as individuals find out about the COVID situation from limited outside sources, the government quickly cracks down on any dissent related to COVID—effectively, silencing the truth while endangering public health. Yet, most hospitals in the country are severely underequipped, understaffed, and frequently require citizens to bring their own healthcare equipment, which is a financial hindrance for most. Additionally, even when individuals do get treatment, the treatments suggested are unavailable or expired. Compounding these issues, ominous rumors have swirled of sick individuals being given a mysterious injection in hospitals and clinics that shortly after cause the patient to die. As mentioned, it is very difficult to acquire accurate information from within and without Turkmenistan. Therefore, while all the details concerning this troubling rumor cannot be investigated, it demonstrates the public’s increasing mistrust and public damage from the government’s misinformation. As such, many sick Turkmen refuse medical care, and instead, opt to self-treat at home. Recognizing the severity of the situation, the fomer Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has urged individuals to use homeopathic treatments that are not scientifically proven, such as licorice root. This situation is a problem because it falsely leads people to believe these unproven treatments are effective, which can worsen the condition of the ill individual. In addition, by not informing the public of the true cause of the illness (the coronavirus), individuals are self-treating for an illness they do not even know.
These restrictions and misinformation, in tandem with the Turkmen government’s refusal to admit to any outbreak of COVID-19 have created a dire situation for the general public. With border and city transit tightly closed and/or limited, in addition to business closures, the already poor economic situation in the country has been extremely exacerbated. Prior to the pandemic, Turkmenistan was already suffering from food shortages, rising prices, and poor general economic conditions. The Turkmen government’s economic inaction against the pandemic and shuttering of businesses has also worsened this food crisis of the country. If the government fails to provide basic foodstuffs, it could damage the public trust of the government even further. In turn, this could have future implications on the stability of the country.
Amid these economic woes, the Turkmen government has taken steps to limit the amount of money leaving the country by limiting the amounts sent via banks, especially to Turkmen students studying abroad. With the closure of all airports, many Turkmen migrants abroad have been stranded and cannot return home or work in the foreign countries due to expired visas, thereby relying on the families in Turkmenistan to send money. As students and migrant workers rely on sending money back and forth between foreign locations and Turkmenistan, many Turkmen have found it difficult to maintain their daily needs. This is important to understand because as migrant workers and students seek to sustain their livelihoods, they have become more susceptible to extremist messaging. Such tactics are evidenced by recent events in Turkey. In one reported incident, a Turkmen migrant worker in Istanbul named Erkin describes being approached by a stranger in the Aksaray neighborhood of Istanbul, who initiated a conversation with him about the difficulties of being a migrant worker from central Asia. The man then offered him a well-paying job in neighboring Syria, clueing Erkin in the man was likely a recruiter from ISIS. Hence, ISIS’ targeted recruitment strategies as well as their rhetoric signify their intent to benefit from misfortune. The recruiter demonstrated a keen awareness of the political and economic hardships of being a migrant worker and sought to exploit these grievances, which should be a warning to the Turkmen government not to lose sight of the threat of terrorism during this pandemic. Extremists are utilizing the political and economic distress of Turkmen migrant workers as a recruitment strategy.
While Turkmenistan’s government needs to tackle the problem of COVID directly, they will be unable to do so until they publically acknowledge its presence in the country. As such, the government’s strict denial of COVID-19’s presence in Turkmenistan has had dire consequences for its people. The information vacuum created by the government has spurred rumors that have resulted in unsupported medical treatments being used as real treatments and has sparked fear to avoid professional treatment as well. While during the pandemic these are real concerns, it is also necessary to understand that these issues of public mistrust of medical and governmental institutions will have lasting consequences into the future. Additionally, the mishandling of the pandemic in Turkmenistan have ushered in renewed hardships in the daily lives of Turkmen, including the inability to access food, return home from abroad, or find steady work. These hardships have also affected Turkmen workers and students stranded abroad—with indications that they have already been approached by extremist individuals seeking to gain new vulnerable recruits. As such, Turkmenistan’s government jeopardizes its political legitimacy from within the country and abroad by intentionally suppressing the coronavirus situation.