Residents of Central Asian countries demonstrated unprecedented activism and solidarity in order to help and support those who found themselves in difficult situations due to the restrictions and lack of work during the fight against coronavirus.
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Volunteers in Tajikistan unite in groups
In Tajikistan, in almost all cities and districts of Tajikistan, volunteer activism has developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the expert, the reason behind this is the loss of confidence in the decisions of the authorities.
The arrival of coronavirus has worsened the problems of the Tajik people. Every day on social media, doctors complain about lack of protective clothing, some complain about unemployment, and others about the cost of medicines.
Tajik singer Rayhona Rakhimova has been helping the doctors and those in need for over a month. She created a Facebook group “Together we will win” through which she engaged several volunteers in charity work.
“We have been doing charity work for several years, however, during the coronavirus pandemic, activities of our volunteers became more significant. We opened a group “Together we will win” to help the doctors and those in need. As we see on social media, doctors do not have sufficient protective clothing and most people need some things.”
Rayhona Rakhimova says that at the start they collected money through the group “Together we will win”, provided doctors with necessary equipment, and also food for several days.
The next step was to publish a call for help on Facebook.
“There were those who provided us with the fabric, and we made masks and distributed them to doctors, the sick and needy. Another group has provided us with food, medicines, clothing and more. We were helped not by large companies, officials or businessmen, but by ordinary people,” she added.
More than 10 people are working in the volunteer group “Together we will win”. Volunteer Shakhzoda Sharipova says that up to 10-20 people turn to them for help every day. “People in need or their relatives write to us on Facebook or via phone. We help them as much as possible,” says Sharipova.
Maria Shirova, a 70-year-old woman lives with her disabled daughter. She receives an allowance of 300 somoni, works as a cleaner at night in the hospital and during the day in the store.
“I am in a difficult position, my daughter has schizophrenia. Until now, no one has helped me, the roof of the house leaked. Thanks to the volunteers, they helped me and even brought me food,” says Shirova.
Oyatullo Khuseinov has been a volunteer in Russia for three years. He and several other young people created the group “Help for Migrants” in order to help those in need. Members of the group became especially active during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Thanks to Tajik youth and bloggers, since April 4, we have been helping all people who are quarantined in Russia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, China, Belarus and other locations. We have volunteers in almost all countries, and we help those who are facing problems, outside the country,” he added.
According to lawyer Oynihol Bobonazarova, the development of the volunteer movement is occurring in light of the government’s failure to cope with its obligations and when people have lost confidence in its decisions.
“When the Minister of Health says that the treatment of patients infected with coronavirus is free, and you see in social networks people looking for medicines, it becomes ridiculous that the Minister considers it acceptable to make such statements,” states Bobonazarova.
As stated by her, it is very important for volunteers to be able to negotiate and establish partnerships.
“Volunteers risk their lives to help people. They set up volunteer associations. All of this is very important in civil society,” says Bobonazarova.
According to her, all incoming humanitarian aid should be distributed in a transparent manner with the involvement of civil society.
“That is, the civil society should control the distribution of this aid,” she added.
The quarantine in Uzbekistan has been prolonged, but there is no more help
The Uzbek authorities in light of the unprecedented civic activism, are trying to control and manage the volunteer movement.
Uzbekistan has seen an unprecedented renaissance of civic activism in recent months.
Without waiting for the state’s support, private volunteers and charitable foundations rushed to help those in need. Social activist Aziza Umarova at the end of March launched a campaign “Covidarnost”, to help the elderly and sick.
The initiative was supported by volunteers and activists. Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov, national artist Yulduz Usmanova and daughter of the president Saida Mirziyoyeva, and others made their contribution.
Volunteers themselves raised money for food and distributed it to those in need, including, childless pensioners over 65, disabled people and etc.
President Shafkat Mirziyoyev delegated responsibility for sponsorship to large businesses.
“An entrepreneur, based on capabilities, can help 10 families, for example, another one – 20, could hire the members of a family in need. The state, in turn, will provide such entrepreneurs with numerous benefits and preferences for taxes, leasing, loans and access to necessary resources. As a result, the state will provide support to the population through business entities,” the president said.
However, soon officials began to criticize the volunteers. For instance, the Deputy Head of the newly formed Ministry of Mahalla and Family Affairs, Elmira Basitkhanova said that allegedly many complaints have been received on the activists, including violations of sanitary standards and unfair distribution of aid.
“Taking into account these circumstances, in order to comply with quarantine requirements and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, a decision has been made to stop visits to the elderly and sick people,” Basitkhanova said.
Instead of a spontaneous volunteer movement, the Ministry of Mahalla and Family Affairs proposed to create a Unified aid coordination center.
Singer Sevara Nazarkhan and other public figures volunteered to assist in the work of the center.
In the volunteer movement, this initiative was considered as the desire of officials to “lead” the volunteer movement and control the collected financial flows.
A resident of Tashkent, Malohat, told how she received help during the gathering of residents of “Kushchinor” mahalla.
“I called 1197, the hotline of the coordination center. I was warned that the line is always busy, so I kept calling all day until I got through. Two weeks later, the Chairman of the mahalla called me and asked me to pick up food: rice, flour, pasta, eggs, and oil. I was told that this assistance is from the state,” says Malohat.
Malohat thinks that she was helped through the funds raised by volunteers.
On May 21, the Unified aid coordination center ceased operations without providing any explanations, in spite of the continued quarantine regime. Its leaders claim that in less than two months, 85,000 families received food aid and a set of medicines in Tashkent alone.
Sergei Mokhin, an activist from Tashkent on his Facebook page negatively evaluated the decision to close the Unified center under the conditions of maintaining quarantine restrictions and limitations on volunteer activities.
Mokhin believes that “people were simply left to their own fate”, and volunteers were forbidden to help in private.
Social activist from Tashkent, Saodat Abduzakirova on her Facebook page, also criticized the decision to transfer the distribution of sponsorship to officials, in particular, from businessman Alisher Usmanov (per 2.5 million soms, or US$250 per family). According to her, this mechanism is absolutely not transparent which creates the possibility of corruption.
On May 18, it was revealed that two high-ranking officials in the Tashkent region appropriated US$15,000 from charity funds.
“Somebody got a bit. Thank you at least for that,” Saodat Abduzakirova ironically commented on the news.
Saodat Abduzakirova believes that the General Prosecutor’s Office simply “found the scapegoats”, and much larger amounts of money could have been appropriated by the army of officials.
During the holy month of Ramadan, foreigners who were stuck in Uzbekistan also received assistance. For example, funds were collected for a ticket from Tashkent to Moscow for Svetlana Galkina, a tourist from Stavropol, who was not able to fly back to Russia before the borders were closed.
Civil society demonstrated unprecedented solidarity after the break of the dam of the Sardoba reservoir, which left tens of thousands of people homeless. In a short period of time, the Uzbek people collected sets of food and warm clothes for the victims. Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov allocated US$10 million in aid.
Due to the threat of a new coronavirus outbreak, the government is not rushing to cancel the quarantine. But at the same time, it actually opposes the volunteer movement, not giving it the opportunity to help those in need.
In such difficult times for the whole world, Kazakh people also support each other. Yerzhan Dauletbaev has been volunteering for more than ten years. At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, he and his team deliver food to pensioners and low-income families with many children, help to call a doctor at home, consult residents and conduct legal consultations.
“In the state of emergency, many people have actually understood who the volunteers are and what they do. Not everyone can bear the psychological pressure, people call, cry, and sometimes they say rude words. You take everything in,” says Dauletbaev.
More than 200 volunteer organizations are functioning in Kazakhstan, and almost all of them did not stand aside during the difficult times. Volunteer groups have been established across the country to buy food and products.
Residents of the capital deliver free hot meals to ambulance dispatchers, and coffee shops distribute free coffee to medical workers and volunteers.
Saule Ismagambetova, a citizen of Kazakhstan, lost her job during the pandemic. She has five children and during the crisis, volunteers regularly delivered food to her family.
“I was very worried when I lost my job. I thought we were going to starve. I called the hotline and asked for help, and I am very grateful that they have immediately delivered the products. After all, we could not buy these products ourselves, and there is everything you need,” the woman says.
The business, which was also seriously hit by the crisis, did not stand aside – some supermarket chains shared stocks for free, and several car dealerships provided transport for volunteers. Hundreds of entrepreneurs across Kazakhstan also made feasible contribution within the framework of the national campaign «BizBirgemiz» (“We are together” – KAZ.).
“The crisis demonstrated that there are no age limits in the volunteer community. Most of the calls with offers of help come from people over 30-40 years old. […]. Someone has lost their job, someone is on a forced vacation. In spite of this, everyday Kazakhstani people show their best qualities by their good deeds, and demonstrate unity of our people in the face of the crisis,” Chairman of the Senate of the Parliament of Kazakhstan, Maulen Ashimbayev, wrote on his Facebook page.
Representatives of show business and pop stars supported citizens with free online concerts. Some entrepreneurs offered their hotels to serve as quarantine facilities and for hospitalization.Photo: Kairat Zhakyp
Aisultan Sagyngali, who heads a farm, slaughtered cattle and distributed the meat to the poor.
“Of course, this is the least I can do, but if we help each other, we will definitely overcome all difficulties,” says Sagyngali.
But at the same time, entrepreneurs complain that amidst the pandemic, the state instead of supporting the business and helping to stay afloat, throws support and charity issues to the private sector.
“I do not refuse to help, but I honestly confess that the regular calls from government agencies, behind each of which is a request to transfer a considerable amount to a certain account or buy more than one hundred thousand masks are very annoying. Every month we have to repay the bank a very large amount and pay interest. Delay, will of course, not save us. […] It is disappointing in this situation, that at this moment we are also being “beaten” by representatives of state agencies,” complains entrepreneur Bolotbek Aliev.
According to official data, the business transferred US$41 million to the Fund of the first President of Kazakhstan for the fight against coronavirus. As the candidate of sociological sciences Murat Koshemisov notes, during difficult times for the country, the Kazakh people have always shown solidarity. However, he wonders why only business should be engaged in charity and be socially responsible, because the country has a national fund which is designed for such challenging situations.
“No one could clearly explain what happened to the money that was raised by businessmen. […] However the authorities, as always, shift all responsibility to the business. National companies, for which billions are allocated annually, should also have been active, but we did not see this,” says Koshemisov.
For several months of quarantine, state of emergency and self-isolation, the government of Kyrgyzstan has done almost nothing to help its citizens. Quite the opposite, as if in an ironic twist, it was ordinary Kyrgyz people who sponsored state agencies.
The government almost immediately opened two deposit accounts, announcing the acceptance of donations from citizens. And people have transferred several million soms to it. It was with this money that the officials organized the purchase of food packages for the poor and decided to make additional payments to medical workers.
During the days of quarantine, almost 400,000 people applied to the Office of aid for humanitarian assistance. The majority of them never received it. Many families have literally managed to survive only thanks to the volunteers, private companies and international organizations. The owners of cafes and restaurants did not let the medical staff and patrols to starve, almost every day providing them with food.
Nadezhda Khokhlova is a volunteer of “All together” group, where several foundations and volunteer movements joined together since the beginning of the isolation regime. She said that for the past two months, they reached almost 3 thousand families and distributed 12 thousand kg of humanitarian aid.
“Almost instantly it became clear that people will not stand without support – no one was ready for such a scenario. Many of us are living on one day earnings and there was no safety cushion. People quickly ate everything, remained hungry and began to panic,” Nadezhda recalls.
Then everyone came together.
For the purchase of food packages, diapers and baby formulas people around the world chipped in. Huge support was provided by the Russians – individuals sent almost 600 thousand soms to the account. These funds were used to buy food that was immediately packed and distributed every day. Auto volunteers and a volunteer rescue team joined the movement.
“The state aid mechanisms did not function as stated. It was impossible to file an electronic application so that a food package will be brought to you in a couple of days. This is how it worked for us: people called, sent documents – the next day they received food support,” said Nadezhda.
After a couple of weeks, activists of “All together” divided the applications based on degree of difficulty: large families and single mothers with three children or more, families with disabled members, single pensioners, and also pregnant women and women with infants. They were helped in the first place. Many are still supported.
When people living in new buildings saw that we distribute humanitarian aid, they ran to us through ditches, gardens and fences to show that they also live in poverty. They presented birth certificates and practically showed off their children as evidence. It was so painful – people had nowhere to go for help. As a result, we created WhatsApp groups of new buildings, where everyone knows each other and does not allow those who are not in a significant need to slip through. Now, we are also announcing when we will arrive and collect applications there,” concluded Nadezhda Khokhlova.
Ildar Sadykov, an activist and entrepreneur, teamed up with several friends and personally purchased groceries and delivered them.
First, I wanted to collect the addresses through akimats, the mayor’s office and the social fund. But when I found out that the lists were submitted by civil servants, I gave up this idea.
“At some addresses in the lists of social protection agencies there were mansions, and in the yard – “Lexus”… The owner of such a house replied to me: “We are civil servants and we were forced to submit the lists, so we inserted our names.” And when we left, he told us: “You brought aid anyway, leave it,” the businessman said.
He stressed that during the delivery of the aid and conversations with those in need, he did not meet those, who would really have been aided by the government or government agencies.
“During the pandemic, starving people were helped by the same ordinary people, who were a little more fortunate. Many have ended up below the poverty line and it was impossible not to react. However our government certainly just sat on the sidelines,” said an outraged Ildar Sadykov.
Usen Toktorov, the owner of a small shop in the Issyk Kul resort town of Cholpon-Ata, has informed about how their region managed to cope with the basic lack of food.
“The aid that our council distributed is a drop in the ocean. We still do not know who received it. I do not dismiss that they have distributed it among their relatives and the main thing was a photo report. In reality, we are all not living lavishly here. In such a terrible time, we shared our last scarce stocks – potatoes, marinades, vegetables. Almost every family that had at least the opportunity to bake bread, tried to support a couple of families, where two such pieces of bread and a kilogram of potatoes literally saved people,” the speaker shared.
He also emphasized that even accounting for the downtime during the quarantine, no one canceled their municipal lease. They just gave a deferral that the entrepreneurs have no idea how to cover.
At the moment, even laboratory diagnostics of COVID-19 are carried out in Bishkek at the expense of private donations from philanthropists.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.