COVID-19 oddities: Why does Turkmenistan have zero cases?

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COVID-19 oddities: Why does Turkmenistan have zero cases?


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Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who used to be a practicing dentist, is currently the president of Turkmenistan, one of 15 countries yet to report a single case of COVID-19. (Image: IV. Murat/Shutterstock)
Brendan Day, DTI

By Brendan Day, DTI

Fri. 24. April 2020


ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has resulted in more than 2.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide and over 160,000 related deaths to this point. Curiously, there are still 15 countries yet to report a single case to WHO. Among these is Turkmenistan, a nation ruled by a former dentist who has taken particular pains to hide the disease’s existence from his compatriots.

Of the 15 countries and territories with no reported COVID-19 cases, the majority are small, remote Pacific islands nations, including Kiribati, Tuvalu, Samoa and Palau. Lesotho, a small country located within South Africa, too reportedly has had no SARS-CoV-2-positive case, though it admittedly did not have adequate facilities and equipment for proper testing until late March. Some of the other countries, including Turkmenistan, its neighbour Tajikistan and North Korea are regarded as having high levels of corruption and regularly suppress information that may portray their respective governments in a poor light.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov: From dentist to president

Since 2007, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has served as the president of Turkmenistan. His path into politics, however, was made possible in many ways by his dental background. In 1979, Berdymukhammedov graduated from the Turkmen State Medical Institute’s dental faculty and began working in private practice in Ashgabat, the country’s capital. From there, his dental career took off, and he eventually returned to the university in 1990 in a teaching capacity. In 1995, he transitioned into a role with Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Health and has remained in politics ever since.

Though Berdymukhammedov has been able to establish a cult of personality in Turkmenistan, many observers have criticised his authoritarian government for its ghastly attitude towards human rights and silencing of journalists. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) placed Turkmenistan last in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, owing to the government’s complete control of domestic media and tendency to persecute reporters. This censorious approach, unfortunately, seems to have been carried over into Berdymukhammedov’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

According to RSF, Turkmen authorities are going out of their way to avoid using the word “coronavirus” in public dispatches, going so far as to remove the term from health information brochures released in schools, hospitals and workplaces. Plain-clothes police are alleged to be apprehending Turkmen citizens wearing masks or even just talking about COVID-19, RSF details.

This denial of information not only endangers the Turkmen citizens most at risk but also reinforces the authoritarianism imposed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov,” said Jeanne Cavelier, head of RSF’s eastern Europe and central Asia department. “We urge the international community to react and to take him to task for his systematic human rights violations.”

“According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkmen authorities are going out of their way to avoid using the word coronavirus in public dispatches”

Though the Turkmen general public likely has little idea of the coronavirus, Berdymukhammedov did take action last month to order the fumigation of all public spaces with the medicinal plant Peganum harmala. Since the advice was issued, state workers have begun to fumigate schools, government offices and other areas twice daily with the fumes of the burning plant, which are believed to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

It is unclear at this point when, or if, Turkmenistan will report any SARS-CoV-2-positive cases, since the nation might be “disinclined” to officially acknowledge any, according to a missive from the US Embassy in Turkmenistan. For the moment, the country has essentially closed its borders to all foreigners, however, and has implemented increased quarantine and screening measures to limit the virus’s spread. No information is available regarding whether or not these measures have affected the everyday work of Turkmen dentists.

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