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COVID-2019: Lessons for Central Asia and Impact on Foreign Policy

«The current crisis is a readiness test of Central Asian countries to build up regional political interaction, remove trade barriers, increase economic cooperation and resolve most of the long-term regional problems,» – mentioned research associate Akram Umarov, in an article written specifically for CABAR.asia.

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Central Asia should study more closely the negative experience of European countries, when the desire to isolate themselves from the virus by minimizing contacts with neighboring countries and restricting the export of certain goods did not help them avoid a pandemic. Photo: gov.kg

The devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic has become a truly serious challenge for the entire world community in 2020. The spread of this virus has long passed from the category of “the most significant challenge to the sustainability of public health systems”[2] into an existential threat to the existing chains of production and supply of goods, the air and railway markets, and the tourism sector, both for many multinational corporations and for millions of local companies worldwide. In the fight against the growing threat, almost all countries of the world have chosen the path of isolation from the outside world, which means the closure of national borders, the cessation of civil transport links, as well as the suspension or significant restriction of the activities of large industrial enterprises.

Pandemic: Global Trends and Lessons for Central Asia

The development of this virus has identified a number of interesting global trends which should be considered by the countries of Central Asia in their systems of government and building foreign policy priorities:

  1. The experience of countries that are currently most successful in managing the spread of coronavirus and its detrimental effects, demonstrates the overwhelming importance of the high speed of implementation and the breadth of measures taken to slow down the growth of the pandemic. At the same time, two dominant approaches in the fight against coronavirus are currently being practiced:

1) “Total quarantine.” In response to the sharp increase in the number of cases in the province of Hubei, where the coronavirus outbreak was located, China immediately introduced “draconic” restrictive measures, closing almost all enterprises, canceling classes in preschool institutions, schools and universities in some of the most infected provinces, as well as stopping public transportation.[3] At the same time, modern information technologies and artificial intelligence were actively used to monitor the movement of the population throughout the country, to recognize people with high fever and other symptoms of viral illness in the crowd. About 760 million people were affected by these government measures.[4] Currently, the European countries that are most affected by the virus, such as Italy, Spain and France, are trying to use this strategy to a greater extent against the pandemic.

2) “Soft quarantine”. South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, which were among the first to take the virus after China, realized the destructive effect of the infection in a short time and took immediate preventive measures.[5] However, in comparison to Beijing, these countries decided to use a slightly different approach in confronting the pandemic. Travel restrictions, quarantine measures, extensive testing of the population and isolation of the infected, along with all those who were in contact with the infected, helped to contain the wide spreading of the virus. Based on previous experience in combating SARS virus infections in 2003 and MERS in 2015, the above mentioned states already had better preparedness and appropriate infrastructure in case of the possible spread of new forms of viral infection.

In addition, responsible compliance by citizens of these countries with the recommendations of state bodies to limit social contacts, cooperation in identifying recent contacts in the event of illness, and complete self-isolation after detecting signs of a viral infection was an important asset. Following the strict rules of sanitization of rooms and territories, as well as measuring the temperature of visitors has become a mandatory practice in all public institutions. Healthcare  systems were able to quickly mobilize and adapt to new challenges, in order to ensure the necessary conditions for arriving patients.

  1. The coronavirus pandemic and the policies of various countries in combating it have intensified discussions about the effectiveness of authoritarian centralized or liberal democratic regimes during such large-scale crises.[6] As a result of the late and slow response to the growing threat, large European countries such as Italy, Spain, France and the UK are facing one of the most serious crises of government and economic stability since the end of World War II. In addition, the pandemic paralyzed almost many traditional democratic procedures such as holding regular meetings and hearings of parliaments, elections to local and national governments, and organizing mass political meetings and protests.[7]

However, after the declaration of a state of emergency, the executive bodies received extraordinary rights and strengthened their authority. However, these countries have still not been able to mobilize the necessary resources to provide critical medical equipment and personal protective equipment, to limit the movement of people outside their homes as much as possible. To explain the reasons for the government’s inability to solve these important tasks, the adviser to the Italian Ministry of Health Walter Ricciardi noted that strict restrictive measures “are not easy to implement in liberal democracies”.[8] In this context, it might seem that China, with its consolidated, mono-party, and centralized state apparatus, which defeated the first wave of the pandemic in a relatively short time, presented an effective alternative to crisis management for Western liberal democracies.

However, are the states with central authoritarian governance model actually more effective in responding to emergency situations than liberal democracies?

I suppose that this is not a completely correct interpretation of the current situation in different countries of the world. Along with China, we can see examples of an effective response to the growing pandemic in South Korea, Sweden and Taiwan, which are referred to the so-called “liberal democracies”. At the same time, countries with a more centralized governance system such as Iran and Saudi Arabia are also facing a serious increase in the number of people infected and killed by the virus.

I assume that the effectiveness of controlling a pandemic depends more on the serious and systematic approach of the authorities, their willingness to take full responsibility for the situation and mobilize all the resources, leadership and effectiveness of the bureaucracies. The key to success in the fight against coronavirus is the preparedness and flexibility of healthcare systems, the level of citizens’ trust in governments and their willingness to follow their instructions, the close interaction of governments with scientists and the scientific validity of the measures taken. Most of the European countries that are most affected by the wide spreading of the virus are now led by populist forces, have complex domestic political problems, and are also governed by unstable governments that change frequently. For example, in Italy, the 66th cabinet of ministers is currently operating in the last 74 years,[9] in Spain the domestic political problem is growing around the status of Catalonia, and the UK is in a protracted Brexit process, which has a destructive effect on the entire public administration system.

  1. This pandemic has seriously damaged the longstanding efforts of expanding globalization, development of international institutions and creation of regional cooperation mechanisms. The sharp increase in the role of sovereign states and national governments in the fight against coronavirus has generated widespread discussion about the end of the era of globalization and the failure of regional interaction formats.[10] Systemic disruptions in the supply chain of goods, suspension of passenger services, closure of borders, tightening of visa rules, increased protectionism, and the lack of clear international coordination in confronting the pandemic paralyzed all the significant achievements of the globalization era.

The existing global cooperation formats such as the G7 and G20 held their first virtual meetings on March 16[11] and March 26,[12] respectively. It took more than two and a half months after the virus spread in China in January 2020. However, following these meetings, the participating countries were not able to work out effective joint measures to counter the pandemic and collective support for the global economy. The European Union has also failed to develop a collective and coordinated policy in response to the pandemic, preferring national strategies to combat coronavirus and individualism over a pan-European position.[13]

The first videoconference of the leaders of G20 due to the threat of a coronavirus pandemic. Photo: AFP / Yonhap

However, I believe that the current pandemic once again clearly demonstrates the interconnectedness and interdependence of the countries of the world. It is impossible to stop the spread of the virus within one country while an outbreak of a pandemic continues in other regions of the world or in neighboring states is in process. Under these conditions, no country in the world can fully ensure its own national security. In this regard, the world urgently needs a global “road map” for combating coronavirus, taking urgent joint measures, eliminating protectionist and selfish measures to restrict trade, export / import of medical equipment, medicines and protective equipment.

Coronavirus: the reaction of Central Asian countries and foreign policy priorities under the new consitions

The first cases of coronavirus infection were officially registered in Kazakhstan on March 13, Uzbekistan on March 15, and Kyrgyzstan on March 18, while no cases of infection have been detected in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.[14] The response of all three Central Asian countries in which cases of coronavirus infections were detected, were similar. Tight restrictive measures were introduced to contain the spread of the pandemic. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan established a state of emergency, and Uzbekistan imposed strict quarantine on almost the entire territory of the country.


The reasons for the implementation of such tough measures include the following:

1) Despite some successes and improvements, in general, the healthcare sector in the countries of the region is faced with such systemic problems as a low level of financing, inefficient use of allocated funds, insufficient availability of modern medical equipment, difficulties in developing staff qualifications, and staff leakage due to an unfair wage level and poor working conditions, as well as the use of outdated treatment standards. Given these problems, regional countries cannot allow a critical increase in pressure on health systems by a large number of infected people, as happens in Italy or Spain. In order to avoid such a collapse of the healthcare sector, it is important for the countries of Central Asia to stop the spread of infection at the initial stage by applying “draconic” quarantine measures.

2) So far, the countries of the region do not have the necessary information technology to fully monitor all contacts of infected people in recent days. In Central Asia, they are also not fully prepared to massively test the population to identify all potential carriers of the virus and isolate them due to the lack of a large number of test systems and their high cost.[15] To solve the problem with an insufficient number of test systems Kazakhstan[16] and Uzbekistan[17] have already supported their scientists in developing national tools for the detection of coronavirus, which are currently undergoing test procedures and official registration. Along with this, many citizens in all countries of the region did not pay due attention to softer warnings and recommendations on restricting visits to public places, observing safety precautions and social distancing.

I suppose that, based on the development of the world situation with coronavirus, it is important for the Central Asian states to pay attention to the following factors when building short- and medium-term foreign policy priorities:

  1. China’s role in the post-coronavirus world. China, being the source of the spread of the new virus, has undergone a significant information attack in the initial stage of the pandemic. However, as significant successes in the fight against infection were achieved, China began to actively pursue a new foreign policy line to build a positive image of the country in the international arena. Beijing launched a “medical diplomacy” humanitarian relief campaign, including protective masks and suits, gloves, test systems and medical equipment for Italy, Serbia, Spain, Iran, the Philippines, Pakistan, Iraq and other countries affected by the spread of coronavirus.[18]

Obviously, without the use of Chinese manufacturing facilities, it is impossible to defeat the current pandemic. Before the crisis, China produced two million medical masks per day in 2019, which amounted to about 50 percent of world production, and in March 2020, Chinese factories increased their production of medical masks to 110 million per day.[19] Moreover, 20 percent of the global production of artificial lung ventilation apparatus (ALVA), which is critically needed by seriously ill patients with coronavirus worldwide, also accounts for China.[20] According to some estimates, countries such as the United States and the UK in urgent need of supplies of 760 thousand[21] and 20 thousand of ALVA.[22] While the governments of Europe, Russia and the United States restrict the export of medical equipment, China can become the main supplier for Central Asia and a kind of “savior” of the world in confronting the pandemic. Such a position in the future will have a significant impact on the growth of importance and the leading role of the Celestial Empire in the post-coronavirus world. In a situation where the leading powers of the world demonstrate a shocking unpreparedness for a pandemic and the actual collapse of traditional institutions of multilateral cooperation, the role and influence of Beijing in Central Asia can also significantly increase.

  1. Anti-crisis plans and the importance of maintaining a balance between external actors. As part of the response to the pandemic, all three Central Asian countries affected by the coronavirus have announced plans to support various sectors of the economy that have been severely affected by the introduced restrictive measures. Kazakhstan announced the adoption of an anti-crisis plan, including costs of 10 billion USD, Uzbekistan approved a package of measures worth about 1.3 billion and various benefits and deferrals to businesses in the amount of  2 billion USD.[23] Kyrgyzstan also announced its initial plan, but still in process of refining its details.[24] The announced programs all involve improving the material support of the medical staff involved in the fight against coronavirus (in Kazakhstan from 470 to 1900,[25] in Uzbekistan from 520 to 2600,[26] in Kyrgyzstan from 460 to 550 US dollars,[27] the stable functioning of the economy, tax and customs exemptions, support for entrepreneurs, large-scale infrastructure investments to support employment and social support for the population.
 Anti-crisis measures to support the population and the economy during the coronavirus pandemic in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Source: Akram Umarov

Under these conditions, regional states will consider potential borrowing opportunities on the international market to cover part of the planned costs of anti-crisis packages. Diversification of loan sources will be important in maintaining a balance of interests of leading powers and influential international financial institutions both in individual countries and at the regional level. At the same time, a large volume of external borrowing can dramatically increase the external debt of the Central Asian states and have a negative impact on their macroeconomic stability in the short and medium term.

  1. The importance of regional cooperation. In response to the spread of coronavirus in the region, the countries of Central Asia announced the closure of state borders, the suspension of the passage of citizens of other states and the suspension of air traffic with the outside world. These measures are certainly justified in the process of confronting the pandemic. However, along with this, Kazakhstan[28] and Kyrgyzstan[29] imposed a ban on the export of a number of food products such as wheat flour, pasta, sunflower oil, sugar, chicken eggs, feed, salt, vegetables and cereals. In recent months, Uzbekistan has not yet imposed restrictions on exports from the country, except for the ban on the export of medical masks abroad.[30] Such unilateral decisions can aggravate the situation in neighboring countries and result in serious socio-economic consequences.

Central Asia should study more closely the negative experience of European countries, when the desire to isolate themselves from the virus by minimizing contacts with neighboring countries and restricting the export of certain goods did not help them avoid a pandemic. Such unilateral measures have undermined many years of trust and further exacerbated the crisis with the spread of coronavirus in Europe. It is noteworthy that Uzbekistan seeks to be consistent in its policy of prioritizing Central Asia and increasing regional cooperation in foreign policy activities. In order to exchange views on the emerging epidemiological situation in Central Asia and establish coordination since mid-March, the President of Uzbekistan held telephone conversations with the heads of all countries of the region and Afghanistan. Uzbekistan also provided humanitarian assistance to Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan in the fight against coronavirus, sending medical masks, protective suits, tests, food and clothing.[31] It would be useful to hold an online meeting of the heads of Central Asian countries in the near future to discuss measures for regional coordination of the pandemic response and mutual support.

None of the regional states will be able to ensure their own security and sustainable economic development by suppressing coronavirus only on their territory while the outbreak of the virus continues in neighboring countries.

I suppose that in the current difficult situation in Central Asian countries, regional cooperation, coordination of actions, information exchange and mutual assistance are extremely important in overcoming all the negative consequences of the pandemic. None of the regional states will be able to ensure their own security and sustainable economic development by suppressing coronavirus only on their territory while the outbreak of the virus continues in neighboring countries. The current crisis is a test of the willingness of Central Asian countries to build up regional political interaction, remove trade barriers, increase economic cooperation and resolve most of the long-term regional problems.


In the context of a global pandemic, it is extremely important for the countries of Central Asia to carefully monitor global trends and take them into account when building their own domestic and foreign policy priorities. Obviously, having analyzed the negative experience of a number of countries that were the first victims of coronavirus infection, the regional states decided to establish strict quarantine measures already at the very initial stage of the first confirmed cases of coronavirus. At the same time, the current development of the situation and the urgent development of anti-crisis measures, the accelerated construction of new hospitals and the sudden revision of foreign trade policies demonstrate the incomplete readiness of many countries of the world including Central Asia for such a crisis. Despite the fact that most countries of the world, along with Central Asia, had at their disposal at least two months after reports of an outbreak of coronavirus, the preventive measures taken during this period were insufficient and require revision of many socio-economic programs in the “manual control” mode.

At the same time, it is important for the region now to think about the post-crisis world, think out its own strategy in the new conditions and prepare for the expected structural changes in the world order and economic system. Cohesion and coherence of regional efforts in confronting potential emergencies require further strengthening of regional cooperation, expanding a range of confidence-building measures in Central Asia, as well as deepening trade and economic cooperation. Strategic planning, mutual support and a balanced foreign policy can be key factors in overcoming the pandemic soon and stabilizing the epidemiological and socio-economic situation in Central Asia.

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

[1] “GCRF RCUK project “Comprehensive Capacity-Building in Eastern Neighbourhood and Central Asia: research integration, impact governance and sustainable communities (COMPASS)”, consisting of a consortium with the University of Kent and University of Cambridge (UK), Belarusian State University, ADA University (Azerbaijan), University of World Economy and Diplomacy (Uzbekistan) and Tajik National University. https://research.kent.ac.uk/gcrf-compass/

[2] Dr Sabine L. van Elsland, Ryan O’Hare. COVID-19: Imperial researchers model likely impact of public health measures. // Imperial College London, 17 March 2020. https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/196234/covid19-imperial-researchers-model-likely-impact/

[3] Amy Gunia. China’s Draconian Lockdown Is Getting Credit for Slowing Coronavirus. Would It Work Anywhere Else? // Time, 13 March 2020. https://time.com/5796425/china-coronavirus-lockdown/

[4] David Cyranoski. What China’s coronavirus response can teach the rest of the world. // Nature, 17 March 2020. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00741-x

[5] Kathrin Hille and Edward White. Containing coronavirus: lessons from Asia. // Financial Times, 16 March 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/e015e096-6532-11ea-a6cd-df28cc3c6a68

[6] Yaroslav Trofimov. Democracy, Dictatorship, Disease: The West Takes Its Turn With Coronavirus. // The Wall Street Journal, 8 March 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/democracy-dictatorship-disease-the-west-takes-its-turn-with-coronavirus-11583701472

[7]Eszter Zalan. How much will coronavirus hurt European democracy? // EUobserver, 26 March 2020. https://euobserver.com/coronavirus/147884  

[8] Jason Horowitz, Emma Bubola and Elisabetta Povoledo. Italy, Pandemic’s New Epicenter, Has Lessons for the World. // The New York Times, 21 March 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/21/world/europe/italy-coronavirus-center-lessons.html

[9] Mattia Ferraresi. Italy’s Politicians Are Making the Coronavirus Crisis Worse. // Foreign Policy, 9 March 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/09/italy-covid19-coronavirus-conte-salvini-epidemic-politicians-are-making-crisis-worse/

[10] Philippe Legrain. The Coronavirus Is Killing Globalization as We Know It. // Foreign Policy, 12 March 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/12/coronavirus-killing-globalization-nationalism-protectionism-trump/

[11] Andrew Gray. G7 leaders to do ‘whatever necessary’ to fight coronavirus. // Politico, 16 March 2020. https://www.politico.eu/article/g7-leaders-to-do-whatever-necessary-to-fight-coronavirus/

[12] G20 pledges €4tn to shore up global economy in united front against coronavirus. // RFI, 27 March 2020. http://www.rfi.fr/en/international/20200327-g20-shows-united-front-to-fight-coronavirus-with-few-details

[13] Judy Dempsey. The Coronavirus Pandemic Should End Europe’s Comfort Zone. // Carnegie Europe, 24 March 2020. https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/81352

[14] Timur Timerkhanov. Coronavirus in Central Asia: What measures are the authorities of the countries of the region taking? // Asia-Plus, March 30, 2020 https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/security/20200330/koronavirus-v-tsentralnoi-azii-kakie-meri-predprinimayut-vlasti-stran-regiona

[15] According to the World Health Organization, the cost of a coronavirus test is 30-60 USD and varies by country. https://ria.ru/20200317/1568743896.html

[16] Kazakhstan has created a sensitive test for coronavirus. // IA REGNUM, March 25, 2020 https://regnum.ru/news/society/2895126.html

[17] Uzbekistan has developed its own test systems for the diagnosis of COVID-19. // Sputnik, March 24, 2020 https://uz.sputniknews.ru/society/20200324/13752572/Uzbekistan-razrabotal-sobstvennye-test-sistemy-dlya-diagnostiki-COVID-19.html

[18] Frank Sieren. Sieren’s China: Aid with ulterior motives. // Deutsche Welle, March 26, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/sierens-china-aid-with-ulterior-motives/a-52931397

[19] Daniel Ren. China boosts face mask production capacity by 450 per cent in a month, threatening a glut scenario. // South China Morning Post, 16 March 2020. https://www.scmp.com/business/companies/article/3075289/china-boosts-face-mask-production-capacity-450-cent-month

[20] China races to increase output of ventilators. // The Star, 31 March 2020. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2020/03/31/china-races-to-increase-output-of-ventilators

[21] Factories in China work 24/7 to build ventilators for Italy, US. // The Straits Times, 24 March 2020. https://www.straitstimes.com/business/companies-markets/factories-in-china-work-247-to-build-ventilators-for-italy-us

[22] Coronavirus: Plan to ramp up ventilator production ‘unrealistic’. // BBC, 16 March 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-51914490

[23] New measures have been taken to support the business. // IA “Gazeta.uz”, April 3, 2020 https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2020/04/03/business-support/

[24] Overview of anti-crisis measures in Central Asia and the Caucasus. // Eurasianet, March 28, 2020 https://russian.eurasianet.org/review-crisis-measure-in-central-Asia–in-Caucasus  

[25] In Kazakhstan, premiums to the salary of doctors reached 850 thousand tenge. // Sputnik, March 30, 2020


[26] Uzbek doctors will receive bonuses of up to 25 million UZS for the fight against COVID-19. // Sputnik, March 30, 2020 https://uz.sputniknews.ru/society/20200326/13777693/Uzbekskie-vrachi-budut-poluchat-nadbavki-do-25-mln-sumov-za-borbu-s-COVID -19.html

[27] Doctors will pay 46 thousand 360 KGS for work in quarantine zones. // 24.kg news agency, March 28, 2020 https://24.kg/obschestvo/148364_vracham_zarabotu_vkarantinnyih_zonah_doplatyat_po46tyisyach_360_somov/

[28] Kazakhstan has introduced a ban on the export of essential food products – a list. // Sputnik, March 24, 2020 https://ru.sputnik.kg/society/20200324/1047548503/kazahstan-zapret-vyvoz-produkty-spisok.html

[29] The authorities banned the export of flour and other goods from the Kyrgyz Republic for six months – list. // Sputnik, March 23, 2020 https://ru.sputnik.kg/economy/20200323/1047520957/gts-gps-gsbehp-kontrabanda-ehksport-zapret.html

[30] Export of medical masks will be discontinued. // Truth of the East (Правда Востока), March 15, 2020 https://pv.uz/ru/news/uzbekistan-discontinues-the-export-of-medical-masks

[31] Uzbekistan sent humanitarian aid shipments to Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. // IA “Podrobno.uz”, April 1, 2020 https://podrobno.uz/cat/obchestvo/uzbekistan-otpravil-gruzy-s-gumanitarnoy-pomoshchyu-v-kyrgyzstan-i-afganistan/

Uzbekistan transferred personal protective equipment and rapid tests to Kyrgyzstan. // March 31, 2020 https://centralasia.media/news:1607284?from=rss

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