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Tajikistan: Dilemma Between Health and Survival

A month has passed since the presence of coronavirus has been officially recognized in Tajikistan, but despite the expectations of the population, a quarantine regime has not been introduced. From the restrictions, the authorities ordered secondary schools to be closed until August 16 and prohibited mass events.

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Abdukhalil Kholikzoda. Photo from personal page on Facebook.com
Abdukhalil Kholikzoda. Photo from personal page on Facebook.com

According to Abdukhalil Kholikzoda, an expert in the field of medicine, Tajikistan could follow the path of Sweden, that is, choose a soft form of quarantine. He believes that the situation with the spread of the virus is out of control and its spread can no longer be prevented by taking strict isolation measures.

Kholikzoda also assumes that a strict quarantine, which requires people to be at home, will deprive individuals of the opportunity to earn a living.

 “It is better to gradually form a collective immunity in society. However, soft quarantine must be strictly adhered to until the end of the epidemic,” says Kholikzoda.

In his opinion, a soft quarantine implies that sick people will mostly be isolated, and those who need medical care will be taken to hospitals by ambulances. For this reason, all hospitals should be provided with ambulances and staff with protective equipment.

Kholikzoda believes that during the period of soft quarantine only key institutions and businesses should work. Institutions that have suspended activities due to the virus, should be granted “financial leave” and payment of bank loans and interest payments should be temporarily suspended for them.

 “If the principles of soft quarantine will be followed, then the losses from the pandemic can be decreased,” he noted.

Shamsiddin Kurbonov, director of medical center “Nasl”, Doctor of Medical Sciences, is also a supporter of introducing a soft quarantine in the country. He says that this measure can reduce the number of cases, although it will not be possible to completely stop the spread of the virus. 

“People’s contacts should be limited with each other as much as possible. Even hospitals with patients do not pose such a threat as crowded places,” he said.
 Shamsiddin Kurbonov. Photo: CABAR.asia
 Shamsiddin Kurbonov. Photo: CABAR.asia

Shamsiddin Kurbonov believes that a soft quarantine should include measures such as restricting movement in public places and quarantine zones to the maximum extent possible, and banning mass events. All medical institutions should be provided with the necessary materials for examination, diagnosis and treatment of patients.

Specialized areas for patient care and treatment are also needed, and the experience of other countries should be studied.

In his view, a soft quarantine should be introduced in each region of the country for a period of more than one month, depending on the extent of the spread of the coronavirus.

 “The readiness of medical institutions, providing them with staff, the availability of rapid tests to diagnose the disease, providing disposable materials, providing medical institutions with medicines, creating an effective and reliable system of work, psychological support for staff, providing their families with funds – all this can increase the effectiveness of medical care against the disease and, ultimately, lead to victory over the pandemic,” says Kurbonov. 

Amin Muqaddam, a virologist and doctor from Oxford (United Kingdom), believes that for countries like Tajikistan, quarantine is not the only way to prevent the disease.

In his opinion, the most reasonable way is to maintain social isolation, use medical masks, expand testing for coronavirus and create a system for tracking people who may be infected with coronavirus.

 Amin Muqaddam. Photo: CABAR.asia
 Amin Muqaddam. Photo: CABAR.asia

“If such measures are applied, there may not be a need for quarantine,” says Amin Muqaddam. 

Some experts consider that Sweden’s experience in fighting the pandemic could be useful for Tajikistan. Sweden, one of the most developed countries with a strong social protection system, did not declare quarantine, and all institutions including schools were open.

However, Amin Muqaddam believes that the Swedish experience has its own particularities, and it cannot be replicated in other countries. For instance, according to him, hospitals in Sweden were prepared in advance for the arrival of a pandemic, and the social behavior of Swedes is different from life in Tajikistan.  

“In Sweden, they are used to living separately and even sometimes alone, this is part of their culture,” says Muqaddam.

Economists’ perspective

Economists believe that if quarantine is declared, the government should provide financial assistance to certain segments of the population.

Ashurboy Solekhzoda: Photo: glavportal.com
Ashurboy Solekhzoda: Photo: glavportal.com

First Deputy Minister of Economic Development and Trade of Tajikistan, Ashurboy Solekhzoda, stated in an interview with newspaper “Tojikiston” that “the announcement of the quarantine will not benefit the economy and the people of Tajikistan”.

According to him, quarantine will lead to paralysis of the wholesale supply sector. Businesses will be closed, economic ties will be broken. Solehzoda predicts that the rehabilitation of production will require additional time and costs.

Sharif Rakhimzoda, director of the Institute of Economics and Demography of the National Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, also said that the introduction of quarantine will harm Tajikistan’s economy. According to his calculations, the closure of all industries in April would have cost about 16 billion somoni (about 1.6 billion US dollars) to the state’s economy. 

Hojimuhammad Umarov, Doctor of Economics, considers that if quarantine is declared, the state’s resources will not be enough to help all the people of the country.

Hojimuhammad Umarov. Photo: CABAR.asia
Hojimuhammad Umarov. Photo: CABAR.asia

Umarov believes that the state should determine which categories of the population it can help. These include such categories as disabled people, people over 60, large families, single mothers and other vulnerable groups.  

Nevertheless, according to him, even these funds will be difficult to find considering low collection of taxes. 

 “Although officials say that everything is under control, however, the situation is not so good, and officials sometimes evaluate it superficially,” Umarov stated.

Olimjon Boboev, an economist and former Member of Parliament, believes that during the two-month quarantine, the population can be provided with the state’s available resources, reserve funds and humanitarian aid.

According to him, small and medium-sized businesses will suffer the most from the quarantine. Therefore, during this period, the authorities should support such businessmen and exempt them from payment of certain taxes.

Olimjon Boboev. Photo: ozodi.org
Olimjon Boboev. Photo: ozodi.org

“The government should allocate a certain amount of money to support labour migrants, and provide the population with interest-free consumer loans. In this case, all government spending on other industries will be suspended and directed towards support of the population,” Boboev added.

To what extent is Tajikistan ready to work remotely?

Asomiddin Atoev, an expert on information and communication technologies (ICT), stated that if quarantine is declared, the population of Tajikistan will not be able to work remotely.

“Experience demonstrates that not all countries are ready to work remotely. Especially Tajikistan. Particularly considering the unlawful anti-technological implementation of the state development policy over the past few years,” Atoev asserted.

He came to this conclusion while observing the experience of “applying distance education in the light of the current pandemic in Central Asian countries”.

 “The relative success of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in this direction in comparison to the domestic failed attempts to apply such regime of education, is proof that our country is not ready for either remote learning or remote work,” Atoev states.

According to him, the roots of “such a sad situation should be looked for in the measures to implement state development policy in general, and in the mistakes in regulating the ICT industry in particular.”

 Asomiddin Atoev. Photo from personal page on Facebook.com
 Asomiddin Atoev. Photo from personal page on Facebook.com

Atoev gave some examples of incorrect decisions. For instance, “introduction of excise tax contrary to the norms of the Tax Code of the Republic of Tajikistan in force in 2011”.

 “This tax is still being applied, and with a two percent growth since April 2015 (the tax increase from 3% to 5%),” Atoev said. 

He also believes that the creation of a Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center (USC), which occurred in December 2015, was a mistake. In his opinion, all these measures have led to the point that the Tajik ICT market has become uncompetitive.

 “Another indicator of the country’s readiness could be the presence of online meetings, for instance, of the same Republican Commission on fighting the pandemic. Unfortunately, this practice is not observed,” Atoev remarked.

Atoev also pointed out the potential of the communication infrastructure and the cost of access to such resources.

“If in urban conditions, the communication infrastructure of the players in the domestic market is still able to provide high-quality access (despite all the efforts of the industry regulator to restrict it), then in rural areas this indicator is much more inferior,” Atoev said.

In his opinion, families lack computers to switch to distance education of schoolchildren. There is also the issue of “digital literacy” of people.

According to Atoev, this was also the result of an “anti-technological” approach in the education sector, in which since 2009 there have been prohibitions and restrictions on the use of mobile communication technologies in schools and universities. 

“If communication infrastructure is still able to provide high-quality access in urban conditions, this indicator is much more inferior in rural areas.”

Atoev also criticized the speed of the Internet in Tajikistan.

“Access speed is a critical indicator for a comfortable online work. Roughly speaking, this indicator can be divided by the speed of the Internet channel incoming to the country (“first mile”), by the speed of the channel within the country (“middle mile”), and then by the speed of the end user’s access (“last mile”). So: the speed of the first mile starting from January 2017 depends monopolistically on Tojiktelekom, not the most competent and tech-savvy company in the domestic market. Speed of the channel in the middle mile, where there is still a slight competition, is better,” Atoev said.

A resident of Dushanbe, whose children attend a private lyceum in Dushanbe, said that his children are now studying remotely with teachers.

“However, the Internet quality is so bad that the teacher barely spends 4-5 minutes of the lesson, as the connection suddenly breaks. When the teacher reconnects again in a couple of minutes, the child loses interest to study,” said the Dushanbe resident, who asked not to be named. 

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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