These days streets are not so busy and crowded in the Central Asia’s largest cities: Tashkent, Almaty, Bishkek and Dushanbe. Yet, they are slowly returning to the previous life even though the tempo varies across the region. While Bishkek and Tashkent seem to encourage economic activity, Almaty is still cautious and Dushanbe struggles with new waves of infections. Restrictions, in some way or another, are kept in most of the cities and policemen are roaming the deserted streets to make sure the situation is firmly under control.
Bishkek is getting out of lockdown
Bishkek was among one of the cities where the Kyrgyz government introduced a curfew. By now the curfew has been lifted, as well as most of the restrictions along with it. It is not yet back to the previous normal in Bishkek, as the city tackles continued epidemics.
Cinema theaters and other places remain closed for the public.
Roadblocks in out-of-city roads, many of which were self-initiated by nearly villagers, are being dismantled throughout the country.
The public transportation is again operational, with the requirement of only seated passengers, alligning with proper distancing and the wearing of masks.
Though masks are not worn in public by many, it is still a symbol of the continuing epidemic and they are worn by the guard of honor.
Wearing masks is also a requirement for entry into the big shops and malls which also organize a temperature check.
The signs on the floor are used to keep safe distance in queues at cashiers’ desks, and are present in many shops.
In some places, such as this bank, customers are let inside in at low numbers to prevent overcrowding on the premises, so people often have to form a queue outside.
While lifting lockdown mitigated some of the issues for vulnerable groups of people, some civic groups continue providing assistance to those need, such as e.g. Narodny Shtab Biz Barbyz (People’s Headquarters We are Here for You) which is still collecting and distributing food packages.
The lockdown and internal roadblocks prompted many people in Bishkek to start using bicycles to move around the city, and many of them continue doing so, despite the reopening of public transportation and the removal of internal roadblocks.
Parks and boulevards were among the latest places opened in the city, much to the joy of Bishkek residents who are trying to find playgrounds for children and refuge from the increasing heat.
Fast rise of infections in Tajikistan
Tajikistan confirmed its first positive COVID-19 cases a month and a half later than its neighbors in the region, but soon took the lead in the death toll in Central Asia. As of 02 June 2020, the Tajik authorities reported 4,100 confirmed cases and 47 deaths. An unofficial alternative list of deaths from COVID-19 and pneumonia which has been composed by the civil society activists exceeds 400 names. The comparatively fast rise of numbers in Tajikistan tells either about underreporting in neighboring countries, the success of strict preventive measures their governments took, or a combination of both.
Tajikistan had the weakest response to the pandemic in the region (Turkmenistan excluded) – denying the recognition of positive cases until April 30th and referring to illnesses and deaths with similar symptoms as “pneumonia.” Other countries in the region such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan stood in line to announce their first cases in mid-March. Though Tajikistan closed its borders, it pompously celebrated Navruz on March 22nd, which traditionally involves thousands of students and schoolchildren in the performances. Earlier, on March 1st, Tajikistan conducted parliamentary elections, followed by the Higher Chamber’s elections on March 27th. On April 17th, President Emomali Rahmon’s son, Rustam Emomali was elected as the Chairman of the Higher Chamber, which constitutionally authorizes him to rule the country in case of an accident with the incumbent president.
The expectation that Tajikistan will not confirm coronavirus cases until all these political plans are fully implemented has come true. Dushanbe officially confirmed its first cases on April 30th. This was done a few days prior to the official WHO delegation visit and Minister of Health was fired.
Frustrated by the inactivity of the officials in March and April, the Tajik public started listing death cases, which now includes 10 times more names than the official count. The list is compiled in a special portal kvtj.info, which was then shut down. But a Facebook group, “COVID-19: Tajikistan,” is full of stories of deaths, sicknesses, and challenges. The activists post stories on other popular social media sites and instant messengers, such as: Odnoklassniki, VKontakte, Instagram, YouTube, Viber, and IMO. Many stories do not make it online at all: only 660,000 social media users in the country (We Are Social, 2020), which reflects the country’s overall weak internet penetration (26%, We Are Social, 2020).
As stated by officials, some of the reasons for recent deaths are linked to “pneumonia” and “heart attacks”. Tajikistan did not announce how the country collects statistics and identifies reasons for death during the pandemic. Statistics problems and death reason identification is a matter of discussion in many other countries too.
In March, Tajikistan closed all borders and shut its airports down, as well as closed mosques for a short period.
In the end of April, the country closed schools, mosques, bazaars, and banned export of some food products. The United Nations, many other international organizations, and diplomatic missions shifted to telework.
In May, the country closed universities, unessential services such as barbershop, fashion saloons, gyms, etc., and urged everyone to wear masks in public, along with starting to clean streets and buildings with chlorine. The state uses its wide broadcast media system to call upon people to wash hands, use antiseptics, remind them to keep a safe physical distance, and avoid unnecessary travel.
Though there is no official quarantine announced, the streets of Dushanbe are mostly empty, due to the combination of school holidays, businesses shutdowns, recent Ramadan, and the pandemic.
President Rahmon appeared in public for the first time wearing a mask on May 20th.
Several hospitals have been re-tasked with curing only potential COVID-19 patients. The authorities are building new hospitals, and with Uzbekistan’s support, they launched a field hospital in Dushanbe which has been unused so far.
Though the authorities say COVID-19 patients are treated for free, prices for medicines have reportedly increased and some important medicines are difficult to procure. Price for the cheapest mask rose from 1 TJS to 7 TJS.
The same is true about the medical personnel – many report that they have to buy protective clothing themselves, for which a package typically costs around $50 (a monthly salary of a nurse).
Activists and volunteers provided considerable help to medical personnel, by giving protective clothing and food. At the same time, following harsh criticism over potential corruption in the dissemination of international aid, President Rahmon ordered the authorities to closely monitor aid dissemination and prevent corruption.
People have become highly responsible in their actions also – with most trying to avoid crowds, wear masks when out, follow the hygienic recommendations to their best capacity, and stay home in general. A mild quarantine, forbidding crowding, is in place until mid-June, but the official data shows some decline of the rate of infections. As of beginning of June, Dushanbe is slightly returning to its normal routine with crowds reappearing in the evenings and people with no masks on their faces.
Green, yellow and red: life in Uzbekistan is gradually returning to its normal
In early May, Uzbekistan began to mitigate the quarantine regime introduced in mid-March. Shops and services, one by one, opened doors for visitors and customers and parks and alleys slowly filled with people. But the quarantine is still maintained, even if in milder forms, including wearing a mask, avoiding groups of people, and keeping a safe distance.
This is still a much milder version of the strict quarantine introduced ever since the first case of coronavirus was registered on March 15th. Almost everything was shut down, including many grocery stores and markets. Reportedly only under a fifth of the working population were able to work remotely, more than one third had to go on a forced leave.
The peak of the epidemic came in mid-April, when official statistics reported a daily increase in the number of infections at 100-150 people per day. Within a month and a half from \ the first case of coronavirus in Uzbekistan, by the end of April, about 2 thousand cases of infection were detected, and the mortality rate remains one of the lowest in the world – 0.4%. But, the coronavirus in the country is still not defeated and this forces people to maintain basic precautions, i.e. quarantine in a milder form.
An interesting measure that defines the Uzbek approach is regional classification according to the degree of coronavirus spread. The areas where COVID-19 has spread is still alarming. Here, this is highlighted in red, whereas yellow is used in the areas where the situation is normalizing, and green indicates a favorable situation. Thus, the map of Uzbekistan appeared in three colors, in which each region is shaded depending on how good or not so good the situation is with the spread of coronavirus. “Red” regions still have some activities reopened, but a list of permitted activities is shorter than those with “yellow” and “green” areas.
Tashkent has been identified as part of the “yellow region”. Businesses are allowed to serve customers in special clothes and masks; at the entrance to the premises (where the services are provided), clients’ hands should be sanitized with alcohol gel. Similar requirements apply in retail banks. The requirements in newly opened clothing and household goods stores are much simpler, here only sellers are required to wear the masks.
People who have been quarantined for a month and a half greet the opportunity to be outside and walk with children. The noticeable psychological effect of quarantine mitigation is evident, in that people feel less fearful of a pandemic (they believe that the situation is improving).
The requirement to wear a mask is not universally observed. There are a lot of so-called “half-masks” on the streets, in which the mask is lowered to the chin. But law enforcement is no longer so strict in relation to those and even those who walk without a mask. Rather, the requirement to wear masks is strictly observed by conscious citizens who understand that danger has not yet passed.
There is no previous liveliness on the streets, probably, this is “hindered” by the daily statistics on detected cases of infection. It shows fewer cases than before, but they are still being revealed.
On May 30, the quarantine in Uzbekistan was extended until June 15. The commission also announced the expansion of the list of permitted activities in red, yellow and green zones, allowing weddings and family celebrations, opening hotels, children’s camps, sports and fitness clubs in the “green” areas.
Almaty continues to live, albeit not as active
To curb the spread of coronavirus in Kazakhstan, the authorities introduced a state of emergency in the country, which lasted almost two months – from March 16 to May 11. Despite the fact that the state of emergency in Kazakhstan was lifted on May 11, quarantine restrictions continue to apply in all cities and regions of the country. Residents of other regions can enter Almaty only with a special pass, while cafes and restaurants remain closed and many organizations have sent their employees on unpaid leave.
During the quarantine period, Almaty continues to live, albeit not as active. You can meet people on the streets, some even play sports in deserted parks, cars drive on roads, and public transport continues to work (strictly buses and metro, but there are very few passengers there.)
Many residents try to comply with the quarantine regime and do not leave their homes without special need, while they do not deny that they really want to return to normal life.
There are cafes and restaurants in the city – offering food and drinks for take out. On weekends, people leave their homes to order food and dine in the fresh air, particularly choosing deserted places so as not to catch the eye of the police. According to the plans of the city authorities, starting from May 18th, cafes and restaurants can open up on the street, but they are subject to all safety standards. “Of course, there is much less work,” says Diana, a waitress at a city cafe. – “Salaries have been cut by half, but we hope that quarantine will end soon and we will begin to work at full strength.”
Policemen continue to keep order in Almaty – they patrol the streets, remind pedestrians to keep their distance or not to go out onto the street unnecessarily. People whose work is considered essential — doctors, policemen, public utilities staff, grocery store employees, food delivery couriers — can freely move around the city. This list also includes journalists.
But for violating the quarantine regime, administrative penalty may follow – either a fine of $63, or arrest for 15 days. While the author was walking around the city with a camera, police patrols stopped him several times and questioned the purpose of the walk and photographs. When they found out that they had a journalist in front of them, they simply recommended that he follow the safety rules. “Usually we stop citizens, we want to know where they are going, we recommend returning home and not walking around the city unnecessarily. If a person resists, is rude, or is in a state of intoxication, we deliver him to the police station, where we issue a fine or arrest him”, – says one of the policemen.
A screening center for testing residents for coronavirus was opened in Almaty – only drivers of the cars can take tests for COVID-19 there, but you may not leave your car. The testing cost is $37. “Mostly people come for testing as they need a certificate confirming that they are not sick with the coronavirus,” – says Dr. Almira Sarsembaeva. – Typically, such certificates are required when applying for a job, before flying to another country, or in order to go to the hospital. A few days later we will open another screening center, only for pedestrians”.
The tests, according to the doctors, are sent to the laboratory, where specialists will find out the test result after six hours.The authorities of Kazakhstan do not exclude the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus infection this summer, so the weakening of quarantine may be temporary.
As of June 2, 2020, there are 11571 cases in Kazakhstan, 4013 in Tajikistan, 3718 in Uzbekistan, and 1845 in Kyrgyzstan (see a live dashboard here).
Text and photos from Bishkek: Medet Tuilegenov, photos from Tashkent: Yuriy Korsuntsev, other contributors preferred to remain anonymous.