As the coronavirus pandemic hits home, people in Central Asian countries are lining up to keep healthy. But many are finding a lack of medicines at pharmacies, rising drug prices, and little help from their governments.
In some cases, criminal proceedings have been launched against pharmacies and other distributors of medicine accused of price gouging. In others, pledges to compensate medical workers are not being met. And in still others, officials appear to be scrambling to combat the spread of disease even as they deny the impact of the coronavirus.
Tajikistan: Rising Prices, Run On Supplies
Tajikistan’s Anti-Monopoly Service, which has the authority to regulate prices on certain goods, has reported that the prices for some drugs, including antivirals, has risen tenfold since the country’s first coronavirus infection was reported in late April.
Abdumajid Muminzod, the head of the service, told a press conference this month that more than 50 pharmacies had been fined for unjustifiably raising prices on essential medicines.
Prosecutor-General Yusuf Rahmon, meanwhile, has said that thousands of administrative and hundreds of criminal cases have been launched against more than 470 pharmacy employees.
Rahmon cited an example in which one unidentified drug that sold for 70 somonis ($6.80) before the coronavirus outbreak was selling for 600 to 700 somonis ($58 to $68).
One pharmacy owner, speaking to RFE/RL’s Tajik Service on condition of anonymity, contended that pharmacies are not to blame and that demand is driving prices higher.
“Citizens themselves were afraid that shops and pharmacies would close as the coronavirus spreads, so they began to stock up. And everyone knows that if a good becomes scarce, then the price for it rises,” the pharmacy owner said, without explaining whether the state or other suppliers were charging pharmacies more than before.
Tajik authorities have repeatedly stressed that treatment for the coronavirus is free, as is all medical care in the country, but citizens who spoke to RFE/RL this month have said that this is often not the case, with patients receiving free hospital stays but incurring costs for medicine and other supplies that can run into the equivalent of hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
The government earlier this month announced that is compiling a list of vulnerable members of the population — including the elderly, low-income families, and the disabled — who are eligible to receive a one-time payout to help alleviate costs associated with the coronavirus outbreak.
The payouts, to be distributed in early August, are expected to be about 400 soms ($40).
Tajikistan has the lowest average wage among all former Soviet republics and had recorded more than 7,200 coronavirus infections and 60 deaths as of July 28.
However, the numbers throughout Central Asia are believed to be higher than officially reported, and RFE/RL’s Tajik Service has shown that several hundred people have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Kazakhstan: Home Treatment Prescribed
Drug shortages and price hikes are also being reported in Kazakhstan, where people complained of difficulties in finding ordinary medicines like aspirin, as well as antibiotics, antivirals, and other prescription drugs.
RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service filmed people lined up outside pharmacies earlier this month in cities across the country. In Almaty, customers at one pharmacy arrived to find long handwritten lists of all the medicines that were not available.
Some also described broader stresses to the country’s health system.
Almaty resident Ernar Akmoldin said that he had been sent home from a hospital, where he was being treated for an undisclosed illness, but was told to “treat it at home, because there are no beds.”
Akmoldin said that he simply stays at home because there “is no medicine and not enough doctors.”
Kazakhstan has recorded more than 84,600 coronavirus infections and 585 deaths. However, on July 28, Health Minister Aleksei Tsoi said that the number of new cases was on the wane, and recommended that some restrictions be eased as of the beginning of August, allowing shopping malls, kindergartens, and beauty salons to reopen.
Uzbekistan — Doctors Go Unpaid
In Uzbekistan, medics have accused the government of breaking promises to increase their salaries during the pandemic.
In an open letter to the authorities posted on Telegram this month, medical workers said that compensation promised by President Shavkat Mirziyoev has not been delivered, and that salaries are often delayed. The letter also said that testing for the coronavirus among medical workers is spotty, raising the risk that they could spread the virus themselves.
“After all, we are human beings and must be with our families,” the letter read. “How long do we have to live in fear, anxiety, and suspicion?”
Another open letter posted on Telegram appealed to the head of Tashkent’s ambulance service to pay salaries on time and to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), claiming that ambulance workers were washing and reusing PPE.
On July 27, the Telegram channel Doctors Of Uzbekistan reported that the Justice Ministry had acknowledged that 10 billion soms ($980,000) earmarked for medical workers had not been paid, and that measures were being taken to address the problem.
The same day, Mirziyoev appeared in public on July 27 wearing a face mask for the first time. Attending a meeting in Tashkent in which city authorities reported on the steps they are taking to combat the coronavirus, the president pledged more support and called on the officials to improve conditions for medical personnel.
Uzbekistan had reported 21,506 coronavirus infections and 122 related deaths as of July 28, and the government has announced that quarantine restrictions are being extended until August 15. The measures, which were scheduled to be lifted August 1, include the mandatory wearing of masks and a ban on large gatherings.
Kyrgyzstan: Country In Mourning
In Kyrgyzstan, the authorities announced that July 30 will be an official day of mourning to honor those killed by the coronavirus pandemic. Flags will fly at half-staff and events will be suspended in the country, which had recorded more than 33,700 coronavirus infections and 1,329 related deaths as of July 28.
Officials have recently announced the purchase of PPE worth 49 million soms ($640,000) for the capital and surrounding region and have reallocated funds to help subsidize medical workers’ salaries.
However, the public has demanded more medical facilities, and Prime Minister Kbatbek Boronov announced this month that new 100-bed hospitals will be built in the capital, Bishkek, and the large southern city of Osh. Boronov also said that vacant buildings in other cities will be converted into medical facilities.
Civil activist Tilek Toktogaziev, however, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that the new measures “will not change anything.”
Toktogaziev, who has traveled throughout the country in recent weeks to install oxygen supply systems at regional hospitals, said that the costs for the effort were borne by local businessmen, not the state.
And rural and district facilities, he added, have “practically no equipment.”
Turkmenistan: The Unbelievable Outlier
The closeted state of Turkmenistan remains officially coronavirus-free, with no cases reported by the authorities, despite suspicions officials are not being transparent.
Yet despite the official narrative, correspondents for RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service have reported that the number of patients at some hospitals have risen and that pharmacies in Lebap Province have been ordered to send antiviral medicine to the capital.
“Even commercial pharmacies have to ship their medicines to Ashgabat,” one pharmacist said on condition of anonymity. “Pharmacy owners are in danger of losing their licenses if they do not comply.”
Correspondents on the ground also report that citizens have expressed concerns about the spraying of disinfectants from the air, a measure that state-run media outlets have described as a “comprehensive decontamination campaign to prevent the spread of infectious diseases across the country.”
Citizens have told RFE/RL that they are concerned that the disinfectant will damage crops, livestock, and people.
Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Michael Scollon based on reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondents Sarvinoz Ruhulloh and Mirzonabi Holikzod; Kyrgyz Service correspondent Aibek Biybosunov; and with reporting by the Turkmen, Uzbek, and Kazakh services