Officials in Uzbekistan have repeatedly announced their success in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, and the numbers they provided seemed to confirm this. But in recent weeks, citizens have reported an extremely dire situation in hospitals and quarantine centers, questioning the veracity of Uzbek officials’ reports of the situation.
Uzbek authorities looked poised for an impending health crisis when it became apparent that the coronavirus was becoming a global pandemic.
The first case of coronavirus was reported in Uzbekistan on March 15.
A week later, Uzbekistan closed all of its borders and the government ordered the establishment of quarantine centers for temporary accommodation – mostly migrant workers who would return from abroad. A special department was also created to manage the centers.
Despite the fact that Uzbekistan coped well with the coronavirus in the early stages, the situation appeared to quickly spiral out of control.
But was the situation under control?
On January 17, Radio Ozodlik reported on a wave of influenza hitting the Uzbek capital Tashkent.
It was the usual annual flu, but the children’s ward of the Tashkent Regional Hospital was overwhelmed and the children – some with high fevers – were forced to lie in the corridors.
Most of the country’s money is concentrated in Tashkent and the Tashkent region, fashion stores operate here, and medical institutions are equipped with the best equipment in Uzbekistan. If this happened in one of the main hospitals in the Tashkent region, one can only guess what the conditions were in some regional hospitals on the periphery.
Officials in Kazakhstan reported their first cases of coronavirus infection on March 13, just two days before the Uzbek authorities reported it.
On April 1, Kazakhstan reported 369 reported cases of coronavirus in the country, while in Uzbekistan there were 172 infected.
April 16 Kazakhstani website Tengrinews wrote: “Uzbekistan has overtaken Kazakhstan in the number of patients with coronavirus.”
The article says that “as of April 15, 2020 at 22.30 in Uzbekistan, the number of cases of coronavirus infection is 1,302,” while in Kazakhstan the number of cases was 1,295.
It seemed inevitable that Uzbekistan would have more cases than any other Central Asian country: the population of Uzbekistan is more than 34 million people, and Kazakhstan is the next most populous country in Central Asia – counts about 18.7 million people.
Perhaps more importantly, at least two million Uzbek citizens (and some say this figure could be doubled) are labor migrants abroad, most of them in Russia.
May 29, First Deputy Minister of Labor of Uzbekistan Erkin Mukhitdinov reportedthat almost half a million labor migrants who lost their jobs in other countries returned to Uzbekistan.
Since then, even more people have returned home, most of them traveling through Russia by bus or car, often camped in temporary camps on the Russian-Kazakh border, where hundreds of other migrants await permission to enter Kazakhstan and return to Uzbekistan.
The likelihood of contracting and spreading the virus should have increased markedly under such circumstances.
But for some reason, the number of reported cases in Kazakhstan continued to grow, while in Uzbekistan this number increased only marginally, and to date, Uzbekistan has not recorded a single day when the number of deaths would be double-digit, which is rather unusual if compare with four neighboring countries (Turkmenistan claims that there are no deaths from COVID-19 in the country).
As of July 29, over 87 thousand cases of coronavirus infection and 793 deaths as a result of this infection were registered in Kazakhstan, while about 22 100 cases and only 127 deaths were registered in Uzbekistan.
The idea is good, but it did not work
The Uzbek authorities created quarantine zones in each region, but from the very beginning there were problems with them.
Less than two weeks after the announcement of the first case of coronavirus in Uzbekistan, quarantine centers have already was more than 28 thousand people.
In many such places, the wards, which were not enough, were packed to capacity with beds, and often four, six or more people slept in one room. Some centers are lined up shipping containers, reminiscent of refugee camps. In hastily organized canteens, dozens of people could often be at the same time.
On April 3, the newly appointed Minister of Health of Kyrgyzstan Sabirzhan Abdikarimov statedthat similar quarantine centers in his country create conditions for the spread of the virus.
None of the Uzbek officials made such statements, but on July 20, Ozodlik reportedthat of the 566 cases of coronavirus reported in the previous 24 hours, 110 were reported in quarantine centers.
On July 15, Radio Ozodlik reported that out of 494 new cases registered in the previous 24 hours, 303 were recorded in quarantine facilities.
There were also messages abuse and multiple suicides in quarantine centers.
Unsurprisingly, in some institutions not without riots, for example, on July 9 in the quarantine camp “Urtasaray” in the Tashkent region.
Some people have complained that they have been waiting for almost a month to be allowed to return home, although the standard observation period is 14 days.
No hospital beds, no medicine
If the healthcare system was heavily loaded before, now it seems to be significantly overloaded.
Dilorom Abduvahabova, who works as a nurse in the emergency department, several times sent messages to the authorities asking them to note that she and her colleagues do not have adequate protective clothing for work. She told Radio Ozodlik that her appeals went unanswered.
People complainthat when they call an ambulance, they are often sent to call another number. Many people find it useless to even try to call an ambulance.
“There is no ambulance, at least die”: despair of COVID-19 patients in Uzbekistan
For those lucky few who still manage to call an ambulance home, there is usually no room in the hospital.
What can we say about the incentive payments promised to medical workers, when even salaries in some cases not paid on time.
On top of that, Radio Ozodlik reportedthat doctors, nurses and workers in quarantine centers are forced to sign a waiver of any claims to the government in case of infection with coronavirus.
An article published on July 24 by the Eurasianet information and analytical web resource reported a shortage of medicines in Uzbekistan and that the ambulance service is so overloaded that in the event of an emergency there is practically no hope of an ambulance arriving.
Freedom reportedthat people have bought almost all available medicines – even those that do nothing for coughs, fever, or breathing problems – and that some are buying medicines of unknown origin and of questionable quality on the black market.
President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoev criticized government officials, including the Minister of Health, for their inability to control the spread of the virus, all 11 heads of Tashkent districts were required to appear on television and apologize to their voters for not living up to their expectations in the fight against coronavirus.
The coronavirus has claimed the lives of many health workers, including Kholishon Jalolova, who her relatives say was working with high fevers while trying to cope with the large flow of coronavirus patients at a hospital in the Yakkasaray district of Tashkent.
According to Mukambar Umarova, daughter of the late 48-year-old Jalolova, her mother worked at the Center for Sanitary and Epidemiological Well-being for 20 years, but even she herself was not tested for COVID-19 in time. Umarova addedthat her mother did not receive any of the additional payments and benefits promised by the government to health workers.
In preparing the article, materials from Radio Ozodlik were used.
Translated from English by Alice Valsamaki.