The pandemic has exposed the downsides of crisis management in Tajikistan. On the other hand, it also has brought various opportunities to improve country’s image and increase control over the flows of information. More details in an article by political scientist Umedjon Majidi for CABAR.asia.
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Emergency situations tend to help authoritarian nations to become more authoritarian, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. When democratic institutions are weak or non-existent, executives may use the emergency situation to tighten one of the main principles of the democratic process: freedom of speech and access to information. In the absence of checks and balances, office holders have an incentive to tighten control over independent sources of information that may contradict official data.
Governments around the world have faced a crisis of legitimacy in responding to COVID-19. Even the most transparent, accountable governments have struggled to demonstrate that they are doing the best possible job of protecting their citizens. It is therefore not a surprise that in countries where the Executive Branch is dominant like in the Republic of Tajikistan and the response of the government is seen as the sole responsibility of a single party or individual, there is added pressure to report success at all costs.
Countries with strongman rulers maintain legitimacy through a tacit agreement with the electorate that they will provide stability and security in exchange for a loss of democratic freedoms. An uncontrolled pandemic, which relies not on the decisive action of a single leader but instead on effective public health institutions, educated doctors, and most of all, personal responsibility of individual citizens, is a nightmare scenario for these regimes. As COVID-19 spread around the world, one by one, illiberal regimes struggled to keep a lid on information that countered the narrative of strong and decisive leadership from the top. First, China and later around the world, there was a trend of leaders making unproven or demonstrably false claims minimizing the severity of the virus; while this was not limited to authoritarian states, it was most common to those countries where leaders regularly attack the free press, including otherwise democratic countries that are led by right-wing populists.
The case of Tajikistan provides an interesting study on impact of pandemic on its governance structure. Despite sharing a border with China and being surrounded by countries that had registered hundreds of positive COVID-19 cases by March 2020, Tajikistan followed the policy of denialism to celebrate the mass gathering until the end of April was one of the last countries in the world to announce that the virus had been detected, ahead of only a few island states, North Korea and Turkmenistan. The country decision to follow denialist strategy was to protect the image of the country that it is safe from outside threat and the theatrical performance in March 2020 was important to be celebrated in mass, even in spite of death rise in “pneumonia” patients in the country. However, population being aware of the pandemic in neighboring countries, started buying the essential goods from markets which caused a certain concern to public officials. Health authorities in this Central Asian country insisted that due to weather changes, its citizens were catching pneumonia, which was registered as increasing but was supposedly not linked to COVID-19.
“No Confirmed Cases”
From early spring until end of April, official authorities did not recognize the existence of the pandemic in Tajikistan and avoided adopting any preventive policy measures, beside closing the airport in early March 2020 and establishing The Inter-Agency Standing Committee on COVID-19 Preparedness and Response lead by country’s Prime Minister. Rumors ran rampant of cases in certain hospitals, as well as widespread speculation that the government was covering up the existence of COVID-19 due to political considerations that had significance to the country’s running elite. Because the mass celebrations of the Navruz Holiday on March 21st were meant to be a showing of national unity in preparation for the presidential election. During this period, state media and government sources regularly reported that there were “no confirmed cases of COVID-19,” a statement that was impossible to disprove, as in fact, no cases were officially confirmed. During this time, country closely collaborated with the leading health organization, WHO to support the official line. The World Health Organization played a questionable role in promoting the official line, repeating the claim that the were no confirmed cases without commenting further on whether adequate measures were being taken to detect cases. However, government has kept asking international aid agencies for help in fighting against COVID-19.
Nonetheless, citizens of Tajikistan noticed that there was increased incidence of atypical respiratory diseases, beyond what had already been a difficult flu season. This seemed to be confirmed in May 2020, when the government acknowledged that there were indeed excess cases, but they were pneumonia, not COVID-19. Citizens and civil society organizations in Social media websites, like Facebook Group – Coronavirus: Tajikistan, wanted accurate, official information, as neighboring countries were already announcing their daily case count and enacting a variety of measures that were not being taken in Tajikistan. When they could not receive any official information, social activists created an informal COVID-19 patient statistics website. The COVID-19 Death Reporting in Tajikistan website, www.kvtj.info, allowed individuals to self-report on COVID-19 patients, thus providing a running list that included both infection and death, as well as a list of external assistance for responding to COVID-19. As of 08 December 2020, the site estimates the number of deaths as 446, compared with the Government’s official figure of 88 while keeping the number of COVID-19 positive cases between 38 to 40 cases per day.
From the end of April, the Government of Tajikistan under certain pressure to gain financial assistance has decided to recognize the existence of the virus and acknowledged that there have been COVID-19 cases in the country, but with much lower numbers than reported on the civil society website. Without the recognizing the presence of COVID-19 cases, the country could not receive financial aid. It created an image that the country can manage the crisis even putting the statistics in lower than in informal portals. The current picture shows a rapid decline in cases, daily rate of contraction varies between 38 to 41 cases, portraying the image of a country that has decisively acted to slow the spread of COVID-19. For comparison, while Tajikistan has the lowest GDP per capita in post-Soviet Central Asia and has relatively poorer health indicators than its neighbors (including the highest incidence of TB), by 14 December 2020 the Tajikistan’s Ministry of Healthcare reported 12714 COVID-19 cases, however unofficially the number is much higher (see figure below).
No News (from authorities) is Bad News (for us)
In March and April, tension escalated online between those who supported the Government’s insistence that there were no cases, and those who questioned it. Across social media, common critiques of civil society initiatives were so widespread and oddly repetitive as to suggest a concerted government campaign. The most common accusation, that activists were, in Russian, panikyori, a term which has ominous echoes going back as far as Stalinist times to describe a citizen or citizens who promote a lie or fake news around the population and create a chaos. Similar wording was widespread in Russia, where people were prosecuted for spreading false information, but in fact they just countered government narrative.
On this backdrop, the Government of Tajikistan in July has amended Criminal and Administrative Codes Offences. A new statute in Administrative code stated illegality of any published information about COVID-19 that is not from official sources. Specifically, all information should be coordinated with the position of Press Department of the Ministry of Health and Social Protection’s COVID-Response Unit, overseen by the Executive Office. Publishing fake or unchecked news on printed media or social media (fine from $50 and $1100), only official statistic should be considered an exact information. The amendments also introduced a fine for not wearing a face mask in public places (fine between $10 and $30); Changes in criminal code regulate contracting other person with COVID-19 virus and quarantine violation with both implying legal punishment for up to 5 years in prison.
This decision has virtually limited the freedom of information which is guaranteed by the Constitution. Introducing administrative fines for sharing unchecked information (beside what government publishes) regarding COVID-19 created has enabled the government to enhance its control over the flows of information. It came as bad news to civil society organizations where many activists come together to help the response and share COVID-19 related information to public.
From anecdotal evidence provided by activists who are afraid to post critical information online, and from a noticeable drop in posts on online forums such as the Facebook page Coronavirus: Tajikistan, it appears that the new law has served its purpose of minimizing independent reporting and analysis of COVID-19 in Tajikistan. It appears that in this small country with relatively low use of social media, high cost of internet (and also slowest in the world after Algeria and Venezuela) and restricted press, it is still possible for the government to control the narrative and claim success against COVID-19, without providing compelling evidence for why its outcomes have been so much more successful than its neighbors.
It was expected this all was done to have a smooth Presidential Election (which happened on October 11) and without a panic, and the government reaction would change afterward, in post-election period the official statistic would tell more real state of coronavirus in the country and its impact on economy and governance. However, the trend of official statistic shows that no dramatic change observed – the trends shows the daily contraction is artificially put to 38-40 cases per day and the response taken by government reduced the pandemic into manageable. But according to the World Health Organization, the COVID-19 does not work this way – contraction happen diabolically, every COVID-19 infected person can contract at least 2 persons.
Tajikistan to become a normally functioning state and a country with a good governance, citizens and civil society should scrutinize the government policies and actions, to keep checks and balances like in successful democracies. Emergency situations like this should not be an exception. Citizens should be provided a trustworthy information and data about the actual situation around the pandemic – artificially publishing 38-41 cases per day does not convince the public on reliability of the information provided. Public trust has dramatically decreased and lack of transparency and integrity in emergency governance are all presence and, to gain the trust the governance should be transparent and public officials promote integrity but not to hide information from citizens. Access to information whether it is an official or non-official, is a basic human rights and government in the country should adhere to that.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.
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