The State of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Central Asia
As in other parts of the world, the pandemic in Central Asia is worsening. The more infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 has appeared in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and, given global trends, may be present in other countries as well. In response to the surging number of cases, every country in the region has reimposed pandemic restrictions including quarantining, restricting travel, and mandating vaccination. Governments in Central Asia and the Caucasus have secured some vaccines for their citizens, but again as elsewhere, more are needed. Vaccines from China and Russia are the ones most commonly available in the region, but Kazakhstan has engineered its own and Turkey is conducting third stage trials of its Turcovac in Kyrgyzstan. As travel slowly resumed during the summer, COVID spread rapidly through the largely unvaccinated population, and now countries find themselves once again in a worsening epidemiological situation.
The lack of information on the number of cases coming from Turkmenistan, and to a lesser extent, Tajikistan has made it difficult to track the pandemic fully, but the region’s countries’ recent actions make one thing clear; there is a problem. In Tajikistan, four days after announcing COVID had remerged, the government declared that all citizens returning from abroad must quarantine for 14 days. Uzbekistan’s government restricted travel to the capital and imposed capacity limits and early closing times for entertainment and service businesses. Similar restrictions were imposed on businesses in Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan, after tests revealed the Delta variant present in the city. In Kyrgyzstan, the Health Ministry declared that the country entered a third wave of COVID, but the highly infectious Delta Variant reportedly had not been detected as of July 6. In response to the surge, the Ministry of Health has urged citizens to abide by existing regulations to wear face masks, socially distance, and wash their hands frequently, but has refrained from introducing new measures. Even in Turkmenistan there are indications that the virus is spreading, despite a lack of government statements. Hospitals there admit an increasing number of people with pneumonia, and the government is reportedly increasing the fine for not wearing face masks. Additionally, Turkmenistan joined Tajikistan in mandating vaccinations for its citizens.
Governments across the region are using different methods to increase the vaccination rates, which remain very low (20% fully vaccinated in Kazakhstan, 1.9% in Kyrgyzstan, 7.5% in Uzbekistan, 3% in Tajikistan and an unknown amount in Turkmenistan). In Kazakhstan, former president Nursultan Nazarbayev publicly received the Sputnik V vaccine to increase confidence in the vaccine, and there are signs that more in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are willing to get vaccinated. However, polls show citizens are more distrustful of Chinese and AstraZeneca vaccines than the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Perhaps because of this distrust, as many businesses and government offices require proof of vaccination in Kazakhstan, some opt to buy black-market vaccine cards rather than taking the shot. This trend will slow Kazakhstan’s vaccination drive and potentially leave the region more susceptible to the pandemic. Turkmenistan and Tajikistan’s requirement for their citizens to receive the vaccine should help curb the virus provided proper oversight of the vaccination program.
With the rise in cases, mortality is on the rise. Kyrgyzstan is predicted to have the highest mortality rate in the world this summer. Adequately addressing the rise in COVID is certainly something that needs to be high on the agenda of every country Central Asia and the Caucasus, as is true elsewhere. However, while actions by national governments are necessary, indications are they will need outside support if they are going to be adequate and effective.
Image source is M. Mishina/Creative Commons.