Over a year after the coronavirus pandemic broke out, Turkmenistan, a Central Asian country, is yet to officially report a case of the infection which has claimed millions of lives globally.
The virus, which was first reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019, has spread to over 200 countries. More than 100 million people have been infected with over two million deaths recorded globally, data from worldometers shows.
Despite reported cases and deaths in neighbouring countries, Turkmenistan government has continued to claim it has zero coronavirus cases. There are, however, concerns that the country with about six million people is barely conducting COVID-19 tests to detect cases.
Experts believe it is unlikely that the country has been left untouched by the pandemic, saying the government appears to be in denial of the virus.
“Official health statistics from Turkmenistan are notoriously unreliable,” Martin McKee from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has studied the Turkmen healthcare system, told BBC.
“For the past decade they have claimed to have no people living with HIV/Aids, a figure that is not plausible. We also know that, in the 2000s, they suppressed evidence of a series of outbreaks, including plague.”
The BBC report also indicates that many Turkmenistani are afraid of suggesting the virus may already be in the country because the government has sought to stifle discussion about COVID-19, including detaining those who speak publicly about it.
In June, the US Embassy in the capital Ashgabat issued a health alert for the country: “While there are no official reports of positive COVID-19 cases in Turkmenistan, the US Embassy has received reports of local citizens with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 undergoing COVID-19 testing and being placed in quarantine in infectious diseases hospitals for up to fourteen days.”
The Turkmenistan government claimed the U.S. alert was inaccurate.
After months of discussions with the country’s government, the World Health Organisation (WHO) regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, tweeted on July 6, 2020, that a special team was on its way to Turkmenistan to assess the COVID-19 situation in the country.
Following the trip, the WHO released a statement noting there were no confirmed cases, but advising the country to act as if COVID-19 is present in the country, Health and Human Rights Journal reported.
“The WHO statement was disappointing for the population that had been hoping it might nudge the government to embrace reality and fulfil human rights, ” according to the news site.
Following the WHO’s visit, the government announced that people should wear face masks but claimed it was only to protect them from high levels of dust.
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