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Tajikistan: an epidemic of pneumonia or is it coronavirus after all?

Tajik authorities still insist that there are no registered cases of coronavirus infection in the country. But the facts of mysterious deaths of dozens of people, transfer of bodies of deceased with strict precautionary measures, and quarantine of their relatives questions these allegations.

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Центральная больница Джаббор Расуловского района. Фото: CABAR.asia
Central hospital of Jabbor Rasulov district. Photo: CABAR.asia

The first mysterious death in Tajikistan was revealed in early April. According to authorities, at that time a resident of Jabbor Rasulov district of the Sughd region, Khabibullo Shodiev died of pneumonia, and after his death the authorities quarantined all his relatives. The regional hospital of Jabbor Rasulov district where Shodiev was hospitalized was quarantined along with the doctors who looked after the deceased.

The reports about Shodiev’s death in Tajikistan were the reason for the start of a widespread debate about coronavirus in the public. Representatives of the Ministry of Health and Social Protection were forced to organize a special briefing, where they stated that the resident of Jabbor Rasulov district, died of pneumonia and not of coronavirus. Authorities stated that Shodiev tested negative for coronavirus.

However, the Ministry of Health ignored requests from the representatives of civil society and the media for publication of the test results thus heightening doubts about the accuracy of the Ministry’s claims.

Ten days after the death of Khabibullo Toshev, another resident of Jabbor Rasulov district, Khojimuhammad Toshev, head of the resource center of the Education Department of Jabbor Rasulov district, also died from pneumonia. He worked in the same building with the brother of Khojimuhammad Toshev. Abdukhalil Juraboev, another resident of Jabbor Rasulov district, also died from pneumonia. The suspicious deaths of only three people in the bordering with Kyrgyzstan, Jabbor Rasulov district, attracted the country’s media attention.

In addition, on April 27, two more residents of Jabbor Rasulov district died – lawyer Komiljon Ibodullozoda and the 68-year-old doctor Nabijon Otaev. Otaev’s death occurred in the central hospital of Jabbor Rasulov district. Other details of these deaths are still unknown.

Also, mysterious facts have been identified about deaths in other regions. This is the death of Oishamoh Alimova, a doctor from Bokhtar, Shodmon Rajabov in the Shahristan district and Jaloliddin Abdujabborzoda, an employee of the Dushanbe’s prosecutor office. The authorities controlled the funeral rites of the dead and people in special protective clothing buried the bodies.

All this only increased doubts in the public.

Many wondered: why were these precautions needed if these people did not die of the coronavirus?

The Ministry of Health in response to these questions states that this is all being done for the purpose of prevention.

The reason for the sudden death of Khurshed Karimov, a teacher of the Dushanbe Lyceum for gifted children is also unknown. His sister, who resides in the United States, wrote on her Facebook page that her brother died from coronavirus. Authorities have not reacted to this incident yet.

Only last week, in Dushanbe, in the medical center No. 1, known as the “Pervii Sovetski”, at least seven people died, mostly elderly and over 60 years old. Authorities again claimed that pneumonia was the cause of the death. However, these people were also buried with increased precautionary measures.

Institute of Gastroenterology of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan in Dushanbe. Photo: CABAR.asia
Institute of Gastroenterology of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan in Dushanbe. Photo: CABAR.asia

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, Bibikhonum Darveshzoda, stated that placing the relatives of the deceased under quarantine and measures taken during the funerals are made for prevention.

Meanwhile, the facts of the diseases of several famous people in Tajikistan, including the poet Ozarakhsh, Khairiniso Yusufi, deputy chairman of People’s Democratic Party and writer Muhiddin Khojazod, have given rise to a new wave of suspicions about the presence of coronavirus in Tajikistan. Tajik journalist Mirsaid Sattoriyon also informed that after returning from Sughd region he has contracted pneumonia.

The Ministry of Health of Tajikistan is promptly responding to all reports of coronavirus and recently even warned the journalists, that it would appeal to the law enforcement agencies, if the media reports inaccurate information about coronavirus, in the view of the Ministry of Health.

Health officials in Tajikistan say that people’s concern regarding the death of several people of pneumonia are groundless, as many people die from this disease each year. In its response letter to the civil society, the Ministry informed that 5023 people were diagnosed with pneumonia in the first three months of the current year, which is 169 fewer cases compared to the same period last year.

Saidbek Sattorov, Tajik virologist, says that pneumonia is a disease which can be caused by bacteria or viruses of any type, including coronavirus. Sattorov states that without laboratory data it is impossible to say something accurately about these mysterious deaths. According to him, only laboratory analysis can determine whether the patient is infected with coronavirus or not.

The questionable deaths caused tension in the Tajik society. Some residents have forbidden their children from going to school. The streets of Dushanbe are less crowded and many people do not leave the house without masks. Authorities have closed the border since April 10.  

The streets of Dushanbe are less crowded and many people do not leave the house without masks. Photo: CABAR.asia
The streets of Dushanbe are less crowded and many people do not leave the house without masks. Photo: CABAR.asia

In social networks, not only the Ministry of Health was criticized, but also the representative office of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Tajikistan. Experts and the media criticized Galina Perfilyeva, the head of the representative office of this organization, for only confirming the statements by Tajik authorities about the absence of coronavirus in the country. However, in a recent interview with “Kommersant”, Perfilyeva stated that: “it is impossible to absolutely claim that there are no cases of the disease in the country.”

Davron Muhammadiev, Doctor of Medicine and the head of the European Health Program of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, informed CABAR.asia that Tajikistan should not wait for the virus to appear and only then start to follow the WHO’s recommendations. According to Muhammadiev, the authorities should provide the public with all required information to eliminate distrust.

 “Among the population there is a great scepticism, not because they are believing it or not, but because there is lack of reliable information. We need to conduct awareness-raising activities with people. Also, for prevention measures re-testing can be done. We can observe that in other countries, not one, but three or four tests are completed per patient to get an accurate result”, – said Davron Muhammadiev.

Where the test kits come from?

The reliability of the coronavirus test kits used in Tajikistan is another factor that casts doubt on authorities’ claims that there is no coronavirus in Tajikistan. A letter from the representatives of the civil society in Tajikistan published last week, also asks about the reliability of these test kits. The letter placed special emphasis on the quality of test kits received from Russia. Earlier, President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko stated that only 30 percent of the Russian test kits give an accurate result.

In response to this question, the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Tajikistan stated that all test kits received by Tajikistan from Russia, China and Germany were certified by the World Health Organization. To date, according to the Ministry of Health, Tajikistan received 23 thousand test kits from Russia, 22 thousand from China and 1900 from Germany.

A sign prohibiting handshakes on a fence in Dushanbe. Photo: CABAR.asia
A sign prohibiting handshakes on a fence in Dushanbe. Photo: CABAR.asia

Meanwhile, on April 27, the Russian news agency “ Interfax” reported, citing its sources, that the coronavirus has already reached Tajikistan and the country’s officials will announce this in the coming days. According to the agency, the government is preparing to announce about the presence of coronavirus in Tajikistan. 

Several hospitals in Tajikistan are under quarantine. In particular, in Dushanbe, the medical center No. 1, “Mansurov clinic”, children’s infectious diseases hospital and two buildings of the Istiklol hospital, where only patients with high temperature are admitted, are quarantined. The sports complex “Manezh” in Dushanbe is also preparing to transfer to quarantine mode. In Khujand, the largest regional hospital was prepared for admission of patients with suspected coronavirus.

The government of Tajikistan, while continuing to claim that there is no coronavirus in the country, nevertheless, recently implemented several recommendations of the World Health Organization. According to the decision of the Republican Commission on coronavirus prevention, headed by Prime Minister Kohir Rasulzoda, students of secondary schools and colleges in Tajikistan will be sent for a two-week vacation starting from April 27 until May 10. Based on this decision, all public events and sports games as well as the export of a number of food products were banned. President Emomali Rahmon also urged people aged over 65 not to go out unless necessary.

All of this occurred on the eve of visit of the World Health Organization’s delegation to Dushanbe. WHO announced that to assess the situation it will send missions to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Some analysts say that the true reason is that the government fears something else – announcement of a quarantine and the closure of enterprises will have severe consequences for the country’s economy. Particularly, when more than 80 percent of Tajikistan’s budget is covered by taxes. 

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

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