COVID-19 in Tajikistan: From Denial to Full-scale Crisis
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Research Associate , VIF

Despite being surrounded by the countries with positive cases of coronavirus, the Tajik Government had consistently denied the existence of the virus until April 30 when 15 cases were reported. This announcement was made when the World Health Organization (WHO) decided to send a team to investigate the Dushanbe’s claims of coronavirus free status. As of June 10, 2020, Tajikistan has more than 4,500 positive cases with a record of 48 deaths.1 Currently, Tajikistan ranks first among the Central Asian countries in the mortality rate from COVID-19.

From the very beginning, there has been disbelief about the Tajik administration's reporting about the spread of the virus. In April, local and international media outlets have reported many deaths due to pneumonia in Tajikistan daily. On April 5, 2020, Ozodi news published a report about a hospital in the Sughd region being closed for quarantine following the death of a patient from pneumonia. After this, multiple stories of people dying from pneumonia flooded in a row. But Government officials still denied the registration of any coronavirus infections. Tajik authorities also blamed the journalists on reporting contrary news, which spread panic among the people.2 On April 21, a member from the World Health Organization (WHO) office in Tajikistan also supported the government's claims of being virus-free. However, after the registration of positive cases, the WHO office in Dushanbe faced criticism for its ignorance of the situation. Consequently, a new representative was appointed in Tajikistan.3

From the end of January, Tajikistan closed international borders and suspended flights from almost 30 countries, including China. President Rahmon also requested loans and grants from global financial institutions to make preparatory arrangements to combat this pandemic. On the other hand, Tajik authorities ignored the WHO guidelines for not holding public events and went ahead with the celebration of Nowruz on a mass level. President Emomali Rahmon had turned down to implement a lockdown. It is only after the continued increase in cases that schools, shops, and salons have been ordered to be closed till June 15. However, public transportation remains crowded, grocery stores and markets are still in operation, and social distancing is not being observed in most parts of the country. Most recently, President Rahmon fired the Tajik Health Minister for his negligence.4

To control the situation, Dushanbe’s Mayor, Rustom Emomali, the son of President Emomali Rahmon, has placed about half of city employees on unpaid leave except for those involved in law enforcement and health sectors. Further to the already worsening situation, On May 20, Chinese workers in at zinc, lead, and copper mine in northern Tajikistan have staged protests and several rallies, demanding that they should be allowed to return to China. Tajik law enforcement officers had to fire in the air to disperse the crowd. For months, these workers were silent, but after the spike in the COVID-19 cases, they started protesting demanding to go back to their home. On the contrary, Tajik migrants in Russia, Kazakhstan, and other parts of the world also faced the same issues.

Tajikistan is the weakest economy in Central Asia, which lacks the necessary healthcare facilities. Dushanbe’s prolonged denial to admit coronavirus infections has made the pandemic situation in the country severe, causing a massive cost to the public health.

Poor Healthcare Infrastructure

Despite receiving substantial monetary assistance to fight the spread of the virus, Tajik authorities have failed to maintain the required healthcare infrastructure. Months of Denial made it worse. People suffering from other critical ailments are also facing a lot of difficulties in their treatments. Health workers are complaining about the chronic shortages of equipment such as PPE kits and ventilators. Tajik citizens also complain that some hospitals refuse to admit the patients of coronavirus due to the lack of beds. Some hospitals also ran out of hand sanitizers.

Food Insecurity

Tajikistan is dependent on its imports for food and consumer-related items. Abrupt closing of international borders and disrupted supply chains, shortages of food items, and pharmaceuticals prevail in the country. Prices for what is available locally have also rocketed. With the outbreak of the virus in Central Asia in March, Kazakhstan, one of Tajikistan’s leading suppliers of food-related products, suspended delivery of food items such as wheat and oils to use it for domestic consumption. This has resulted in a food crisis in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The poor and economically weaker section is the most affected by these developments.

Deteriorating Economic Growth

Remittance transfers from Tajik labourers in Russia fell 50 percent in March and the first half of April 2020. On May 6, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a grant of 189.5 million USD to the Tajik government to meet the challenges arising from the coronavirus crisis.5 According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Tajik economy will witness a plunge in investments, a reduction in remittances, and deterioration in foreign direct investments due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In its Asian Development Outlook (ADO 2020, published on April 3, 2020), ADB forecasts (as of March 16, 2020) that Tajikistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth will fall to 5.5 percent and 5.0 percent in 2020 and 2021, respectively, from the 7.5 percent recorded in 2019. However, these are the pre-COVID-19 estimated figures but are expected to be decelerating in the post-COVID period also. In 2019, the Tajik economy recorded 8 percent inflation, and it is projected to remain under 10 percent in 2020. Food prices will continue to increase this year.6

Increased Poverty and Unemployment

This pandemic has proved to be fatal for the daily workers in and out of Tajikistan. Russia was the primary destination for Tajik migrants, and since Russia itself is facing an acute crisis due to coronavirus, these migrants have returned home after being stranded for months. However, the situation in Tajikistan is worse as now the retuned migrants are in search of a job to earn their daily living. And it is only going to add to the spared of the virus. Among other social support measures, the Tajik government has announced unemployment benefits; however, there are still a lot of uncertainties about its distribution.

Cooperative Neighbours

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan had troubled relations with its neighbours Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. However, inter-state relations became pleasant with the Uzbek president Shawkat Mirziyoyev’s initiative to bring all the Central Asian republics together to discuss the issues of regional importance. This bonhomie is evident even during this pandemic. Among Central Asian Republics, Uzbekistan turned out to be the significant humanitarian aid donor to Tajikistan by giving about 2.5 million USD since the outbreak of the pandemic in January.7 Uzbekistan has also sent a group of doctors to Dushanbe to help Tajik medical workers to treat COVID-19 patients. Medical equipment and food items were also delivered by Uzbekistan to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as well.

Kazakhstan, with the highest number of corona positive cases in Central Asia, is efficiently managing the crisis. On May 13, 2020, Kazakh President Kassym Jomart Tokayev provided humanitarian assistance to Tajikistan, which included 5,000 tons of flour worth more than 3 million USD.8

Foreign Aid

The medical facilities in Tajikistan struggle to keep up with the rising number of cases.9 Therefore, to prevent severe economic and human disruption and to preserve financial resilience for essential pandemic related health and social expenditure, Tajikistan has obtained millions of dollars from the international community to combat the COVID-19 crisis.10 The help came from the IMF, World Bank, ADB, United States, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Switzerland in the form of monetary assistance, logistical guidance, medical aid (masks, personal protection equipment (PPE), thermometers and ventilators) and even food basics.11 The United States, through its humanitarian aid agency (USAID), provided 1 million USD to Tajikistan along with 1.69 million USD pledged by US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to manage the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.12

Role of India

India is effectively fighting the spread of the virus and, at the same time, is helping many countries in the world to counter this pandemic. Central Asian republics also received humanitarian aid from India. Tajikistan is an extended neighbour and a strategic partner of India. India has provided Hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol tablets as humanitarian aid.13

India is also bringing back stranded Indian citizens from different parts of the world due to coronavirus. There are around 1,200 Indian students in Tajikistan. On May 27, Government of India (GOI) under its Vande Bharat Mission organized a special flight for repatriation of Tajik citizens stranded in India. This flight carried 45 Tajik citizens from India. On return, the flight brought 143 Indian citizens back from Dushanbe to Kannur (Kerala).14 On May 28, a special Air India flight delivered 4.6 tonnes of medical supplies to the Government of Tajikistan. The flight also carried one Tajik citizen, who was studying under India’s ITEC program and could not travel back due to Covid-19 pandemic. On its return, the Air India flight took back 143 Indian citizens from Dushanbe to Jaipur (Rajasthan).15Several flights have been arranged to bring back the rest of Indian citizens from Tajikistan.

Tajik Foreign Minister, H.E. Mr. Sirojiddin Muhriddin sent a letter thanking External Affairs Minister of India, Dr. S. Jaishankar, for the humanitarian assistance provided by the GOI to Tajikistan in its fight against Covid-19.16 This medical diplomacy of India will enhance the goodwill for India in Tajikistan.

China’s Medical Diplomacy in Tajikistan

China being the primary stakeholder in the economic and security structure of Tajikistan is playing a proactive role in Tajikistan’s combat with the pandemic. Tajikistan is also crucial for China’s Belt and Road (BRI) in Central Asia. The Line D of China-Central Asia Gas pipeline, which is expected to deliver 30 bcm gas from Turkmenistan to China, will go through Tajikistan. Due to the pandemic, Chinese BRI projects in Central Asia are stalled but are also expected to gain momentum once the situation normalises.

In a telephonic conversation with the Tajik Foreign Minister on May 6, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that “as Tajikistan's comprehensive strategic partner, China will always stand with Tajikistan until it finally eliminates the COVID-19 epidemic at home”.17 Even before the outbreak in Tajikistan, China had provided Tajikistan with supplies to fight COVID-19. At present, when Tajikistan is facing the impact of the epidemic, China provides medical and monetary assistance to Tajikistan. Chinese doctors reached Tajikistan to help Tajik health professionals in their fight against coronavirus.18

Through its medical diplomacy during these difficult times, China is trying to garner the support of many developing countries. Through its diplomatic efforts and coordination with countries in need, China will produce much needed soft power, which will further make the developing countries such as Tajikistan more dependent on it. In return, Tajikistan will extend its support to build a pro-Chinese narrative against the western criticism of China.19

Endnotes
  1. ‘Tajikistan reports 171 new COVID-19 cases, 3,100 in total’, AKI Press May 26 2020. https://akipress.com/news:642224:Tajikistan_reports_171_new_COVID-19_cases,_3,100_in_total/
  2. ‘ The price of silence’, Ferghana News, May 8 2020. https://en.fergana.news/articles/117946/
  3. ‘WHO appoints new representative to Tajikistan’, Asia plus News, 27 May 2020. https://www.asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/society/20200527/who-appoints-new-special-representative-to-tajikistan
  4. ‘Tajikistan on Course for Central Asia’s Worst COVID-19 Outbreak’, YB, 15 May 2020. https://www.youngbhartiya.com/article/tajikistan-on-course-for-central-asia-s-worst-covid-19-outbreak
  5. ‘Dashboard: Coronavirus in Eurasia’, May 25, 2020, https://eurasianet.org/dashboard-coronavirus-in-eurasia
  6. ‘Coronavirus- The situation in Tajikistan’, Flanders Trade, https://www.flandersinvestmentandtrade.com/export/nieuws/corona-virus-situation-tajikistan
  7. Ermek Baisalov and Arsen Omuraliev, ‘Month in review: Central Asia in May 2020’, CABAR Asia, 1 June 2020. https://cabar.asia/en/month-in-review-central-asia-in-may-2020/
  8. ‘Covid Diplomacy in Central Asia: Humanitarian Aid by Kazakhstan’, The Economic Times, 18 April 2020. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/covid-diplomacy-in-central-asia-humanitarian-aid-by-kazakhstan/articleshow/75222728.cms?from=mdr
  9. ‘Tajikistan On Course For Central Asia’s Worst COVID-19 Outbreak’, YB, 15 May 2020. https://www.youngbhartiya.com/article/tajikistan-on-course-for-central-asia-s-worst-covid-19-outbreak
  10. ‘IMF approves $189.5 million for Tajikistan to address COVID-19 pandemic’, Times of Central Asia, 07 May 2020, https://www.timesca.com/index.php/news/22442-imf-approves-189-5-million-for-tajikistan-to-address-covid-19-pandemic
  11. ‘Tajikistan plunges from denial to full-blown crisis’, Eurasia net, 4 May 2020, https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-plunges-from-denial-to-full-blown-crisis
  12. ‘US Centers for Disease Control pledges $1.69 million for Tajikistan to fight COVID-19’, Times of Central Asia, 07 May 2020. https://www.timesca.com/index.php/news/22441-us-centers-for-disease-control-pledges-1-69-million-for-tajikistan-to-fight-covid-19
  13. ‘Covid-19: India provides aid to strategic partner Tajikistan’, WIO News, 20 may 2020. https://www.wionews.com/india-news/covid-19-india-provides-aid-to-strategic-partner-tajikistan-299840
  14. ‘First Vande Bharat Mission flight to Kannur takes off’, Indian Embassy in Dushanbe, 27 May 2020. http://www.eoidushanbe.gov.in/news_detail/?newsid=68
  15. ‘India continues its assistance to Tajikistan’, Indian Embassy in Dushambe, May 28, 2020.http://www.eoidushanbe.gov.in/news_detail/?newsid=69
  16. ‘Tajik FM thanked EAM for India's humanitarian assistance’, Embassy of India. Tajikistan, 12 May 2020. http://www.eoidushanbe.gov.in/news_detail/?newsid=65
  17. ‘China will stand with Tajikistan till COVID-19 elimination: Chinese FM’, Xinhuanet, 6 May 2020. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-05/06/c_139034188.htm
  18. ‘Chinese medical experts arrive in Tajikistan to assist anti-epidemic efforts’, Xinhuanet, 24 may 2020. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-05/24/c_139084419.htm
  19. Sherzod Shamiev, ‘The Battle of Narratives During Coronavirus Crisis and its Impact on China – Tajikistan Relations’ Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting, May 26 2020. https://cabar.asia/en/the-battle-of-narratives-during-coronavirus-crisis-and-it-s-impact-on-china-tajikistan-relations/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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