COVID- 19: A Governance Challenge in Central Asia

Law enforcement officers wearing face masks are seen on duty at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Almaty on March 19, 2020, after authorities locked down the city to contain the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (Photo by Ruslan PRYANIKOV / AFP)

As the social distancing and home quarantine become the new norm across the countries around the world, Turkmenistan witnessed the Horse Day celebration with thousands of spectators in the stadiums honouring the President’s horse only to be declared as the winner. The negligible number of cases surfaced in the region compared to the global average cases is seen with a lot of scepticism rather than a miracle. The virus has emerged as a severe challenge not only for the healthcare system but exposed the weaknesses of the political system of Central Asian Republics. Kate   Mallinson of Chatham house argues that born out of a legacy of the Soviet Union, Central Asian governments are more prone to secrecy than transparency on matters of security. The situation to deal with pandemic becomes complex for the Central Asian countries due to their repressive and authoritarian administrative structures.

Policy responses in Central Asia

Central Asian Republics lie in the Chinese neighbourhood and despite the spread of outbreak all across the world, the region reported the first case in mid-March. Kazakhstan was the first Central Asian Republic to report the Covid-19 cases on 13 March. This compelled the government to declare an emergency and to enforce the lockdown. The Kazakh authorities have ordered the closure of all borders for non-citizens with the suspension of all air and train traffic. There has been a ban on movement in public spaces and ban on export items. The government has declared monetary relief measures in the form of wage and unemployment subsidies. It was followed by the cases being confirmed in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan which also adopted similar emergency measures. Kyrgyzstan which called for emergency relief funding became the first country to benefit from emergency support funds from the IMF.

Kazakh personnel use a thermal scanner to detect travellers from China who may have symptoms possibly connected with the coronavirus at Almaty International Airport/ Image: Reuters

Tajikistan finally confirmed its first case of COVID – 19 on 30th April after its repeated public denial of the scale or severity of the pandemic. Turkmenistan remains one of the few countries in the world to be “officially” coronavirus free. There has been no lockdown imposed in the country yet though some restrictions have been imposed such as measuring the temperature of passengers at checkpoints. The claims of Turkmenistan have raised scepticism as the country is believed to have one of the most closed and secretive governments in the world.

Lack of transparency in the response measures

Central Asian governments face the challenge of corrupt state practices and lack of transparency while implementing measures to control the pandemic. The republics score low in The World Press Freedom Index 2020 which was released at the peak of the global pandemic in April. Maintaining transparency and accountability and to ensure freedom to its citizens become the important governance challenges to deal with the pandemic. “Governments in Central Asia have failed to consistently uphold human rights obligations in their responses to the Covid-19 pandemic by limiting access to information about the spread of the virus and implementing restrictions in discriminatory or arbitrary ways”, Human Rights Watch

Central Asian Countries on World Press Freedom Index by RSF

The repressive and abusive containment measures seen in Central Asia have been followed by the initial stages of downplaying the virus. The absence of strong domestic and international media in the region fail to provide an accurate situation of the spread of the pandemic. The government in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan while acknowledging cases of Covid-19 took important steps to control its spread and protect its citizens including lockdowns and travel restrictions. But some of the response measures are taking the shape of repressive measures which are severely lacking in their human rights obligations. Some of the measures which target journalists, healthcare providers, and activists are abusive. Movement of independent media and outlets have been restricted to pass police checkpoints in Kyrgyzstan.

Quarantine measures in Kazakhstan have been proved arbitrary in cases where authorities have welded the doors of apartments to make people forcibly stay inside.  Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan have all issued threats of imposing criminal sanctions or opened investigations against the doctors concerned about inadequate protective equipment. Authorities in Uzbekistan have been confiscating mobile phones from those in quarantine in the name of limiting the spread of fear and disinformation related to the coronavirus. While Turkmenistan adopted measures to raise awareness about hand sanitization and other hygiene measures, it continues to silence medical workers. Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has even promoted the cures of the virus by recommending burning harmala grass in the home as protection from infection.

Conclusion  

“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measure”. While the evolving situation of a pandemic requires the strict state measures to control the epidemic and is not be questioned but the nature and extent of the measures need to be scrutinized. Everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of health, and governments are under the obligation to ensure that in the times of epidemics and other diseases under international law. There is an utter need for the Central Asian governments to ensure the citizens with timely, accurate, and evidence-based information about the prevention of the spread of Covid-19. The information provided by the state about the pandemic and its efforts should be transparent and scrutinized. Freedom of expression, media independence, and open deliberation are prerequisite to deal with the public health emergency. There is a need to draw a careful distinction between extraordinary measures and extra-constitutional measures while dealing with the pandemic. The state response by Central Asian government to the pandemic should not violate the protection of human rights. Curtailing certain rights as a response to the pandemic has to based on evidence-based transparent measures. There is a constant need to adopt the best medical and social practices to deal with the pandemic within the responsible and transparent government mechanism.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Akanksha Meena

Akanksha Meena is currently pursuing MPhil in Centre for Inner Asian Studies, School for International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her areas of interest include Energy Security, Energy Diplomacy, Government and politics in Central Asian Countries, Security in Afghanistan and Indian Foreign Policy.

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