EU Allocates Funding to Assist Central Asia In Tackling COVID Pandemic
On July 15, the European Union announced a €3 million ($3.52 million) Central Asia COVID-19 Crisis Response (CACCR) program directed at tackling the ongoing health crisis and its consequences in Central Asia with a primary focus on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. The two-year CACCR project will be managed by the World Health Organization in three stages.
In the first stage, the program will mobilize efforts to deal with immediate needs arising from the coronavirus outbreak, including the provision of personal protective equipment, diagnostic test kits, and oxygen generators. The second stage will focus on recovery measures and steps to prepare for a possibility of subsequent COVID waves. The CACCR’s third stage will assist local hospitals and laboratories with establishing better practices to combat similar pandemics in future and enhancing procedures on crisis management. The Ambassador and Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Turkmenistan Diego Ruiz Alonso stated that, “the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how vulnerable our national health systems are,” and highlighted the critical importance of making healthcare in the region more resilient and sustainable in the long term.
The World Bank has also committed to assist Central Asia in establishing an integrated health system that would help the region combat future pandemics. It seeks to support the creation of a regional platform for the exchange of information, knowledge, and expertise among states. Development of robust institutions with the common health regulations is another priority for the World Bank as it seeks to bolster Central Asia’s ability to quickly respond to and mitigate future diseases.
Although no country appeared to be fully prepared for the coronavirus outbreak, Central Asia has been amongst the most vulnerable regions. According to the Global Health Security Index (GHSI), a database that measures the ability of countries to respond to health emergencies, none of Central Asian states scored higher than 50 out of 100, meaning their health systems were not properly equipped to effectively deal with a disease outbreak. All countries scored particularly low on such indicators as Rapid Response and Health System.
Given how significantly underfunded public healthcare systems are in Central Asia, it comes as no surprise that the coronavirus outbreak has put considerable pressure on the region. According to an OECD report, regional healthcare spending amounts to around 6.3 percent of GDP, which forces people to rely on out-of-pocket expenses and creates substantial barriers to access health services. Tajikistan, for example, has the lowest regional public health funding with only $55 allocated per individual, while Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan spend $78, $98, and $279 per capita, respectively. As the report further suggests, poor healthcare system performance has also played a critical role in the region’s lack of preparation to confront the outbreak. As a result, the CACCR program will not only provide humanitarian assistance, but will also help to establish more efficient and robust health institutions in the region.
The easing of hard lockdown measures followed by a dramatic surge in new COVID cases has put an additional strain on the region. Given that Central Asia’s economies are susceptible to economic shocks, it has been particularly challenging for the region to balance between attempts to contain the spread of the virus and efforts to maintain economic activities. As a result, as of August 10, there are already over 99,000 confirmed COVID cases in Kazakhstan, while Kyrgyzstan reports around 40,500 confirmed cases and has the highest infection and fatality rates in the region. Uzbekistan, the most populous state in Central Asia, has over 31,000 infected people and Tajikistan confirmed over 7,800 cases. While Turkmenistan has not officially reported any COVID cases, health experts doubt the validity of these records. The WHO, for example, has concerns over the increase in pneumonia cases in the country that could be linked to the new virus. To curb the spike in new cases, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have imposed new lockdowns, which includes a bans on public gatherings and limits to transportation.
COVID-19 has revealed long-lasting problems in the region’s health systems that affected states’ preparedness and response to the pandemic. As a result, there has been a drastic increase in coronavirus cases in the region that has further overwhelmed local public health capacity. External assistance in the form of projects offered by the EU funded CACCR program and the World Bank initiatives are critical in helping to reduce the burden on the region and providing long-term assistance to mitigate the adverse effects of future disease outbreaks.