Turkmenistan, where Covid-19 does not exist, but vaccination is now compulsory

There are, officially at least, no cases of Covid-19 in Turkmenistan. But the country last week became the first in the world to make vaccination against the virus obligatory for all adults.

Turkmenistan has yet to officially report a single case of coronavirus, with its president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, continuing to insist that his country is Covid-19-free.

His latest claims of zero-Covid came at a televised government meeting on June 29, but were undermined somewhat by additional statements calling for the development of more effective vaccines, and his acceptance last week of 20 million US dollars from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) for the Turkmenistan Covid-19 Response Project.

According to the World Bank Group, of which the IBRD is part, the financing will “reinforce the country’s response efforts and preparedness against the health and social risks of the pandemic”.

Neighbouring countries, including Russia, Iran, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, are all currently reporting a major surge in new cases.

Turkmenistan last week became the first country in the world to legally require all residents over 18 to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Only those with medical contraindications will be exempted. The country has procured vaccines from both Russia and China.

According to the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Turkmenistan’s vaccine laws will be the strictest in the world, surpassing those of Saudi Arabia, which since March has operated a broad “no jab, no job” policy in both public and private sectors.

Turkmenistan also last week announced new mask and social distancing requirements, although – unsurprising given it has yet to acknowledge any cases of Covid-19 – it has yet to acknowledge any deaths from coronavirus.

Research published in May by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that Central Asia and Eastern Europe are the regions hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, but that governments there have seriously undercounted cases and deaths.

Lots of pneumonia, but no Covid-19

The government of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has drawn criticism from the World Health Organisation for its refusal to provide data on Covid-19 cases and deaths, a stance it now shares only with North Korea. The BMJ says that other formerly reluctant countries like Tanzania and Nicaragua have finally begun reporting.

President Berdymukhammedov recently told Moscow-based broadcaster Mir in a rare interview that “thanks to work (we) have carried out”, Turkmenistan has “yet to discover a case of this disease”.

There has, however, reportedly been a spike in cases of pneumonia, and Covid-19 restrictions are amongst the toughest in the world.

Last month, the UCI, international cycling’s ruling body, was forced to cancel the World Track Cycling Championships, scheduled to be held in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat in October, citing “health constraints and restrictions linked to the Covid-19 pandemic which make it impossible to stage the event in Turkmenistan”.

According to Human Rights Watch, the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically exacerbated Turkmenistan’s pre-existing food crisis.

Shortages of subsidised food, accelerating since 2016, have worsened, with people waiting hours in line to try to buy more affordable food products, often being turned away empty-handed.

In May, there were reports of officials in some cities banning queues outside state stores selling subsidised food after Deputy Prime Minister Serdar Berdymukhammedov, the son of the president, publicly said that crowds near stores “discredit” his father.

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