(CNN) – For almost two years since the start of the pandemic, Turkmenistan has not seen a single case of Covid-19.
Or at least that’s what the secret, authoritarian government of the Central Asian country claims.
Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic home to nearly 6 million people, is one of at least five countries that have not reported any cases of coronavirus, according to a review of data collected by Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organization. Three of these are isolated islands in the Pacific and the fourth is North Korea, a tightly controlled hermit state.
Turkmenistan’s repressive President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has reigned since 2006, dismissed reports of Covid-19 in the country as “false” and told the United Nations on Tuesday that the response to the pandemic should not be ” politicized ”.
But independent organizations, journalists and activists outside Turkmenistan say there is evidence the country is fighting a third wave that is overwhelming hospitals and killing dozens – and warns the president is downplaying virus threat deadly in order to maintain its public image.
Ruslan Myatiev, an exile from Turkmenistan and editor-in-chief of the Netherlands-based independent news agency Turkmen News, said he had personally collected the names of more than 60 people who he said died from Covid -19 inside the country, including teachers, artists and doctors.
Myatiev said he had verified all recorded deaths with medical records and x-rays, revealing severe lung damage and consistent medical treatment with coronavirus victims.
“Instead of accepting it and cooperating with the international community, Turkmenistan has decided to put its head in the sand,” Myatiev said.
The Turkmen government did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
How it went
As Covid-19 spread around the world in early 2020, Turkmenistan insisted there were no cases, even though border countries reported outbreaks.
Iran, with which Turkmenistan shares a long land border, has reported one of the world’s largest outbreaks of Covid-19 with nearly 5.5 million cases in total, according to the World Health Organization ( WHO).
“You look at what’s going on in other countries in the region and how different could Turkmenistan be? Said Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.
According to the websites of the British and Australian foreign ministries, all flights to Turkmenistan are currently suspended and only Turkmen citizens are allowed to enter the country.
Myatiev said his sources in Turkmenistan started contacting him about cases around May 2020 – around the same time Covid-19 was spreading around the world. He said the first messages he received spoke of a “strange, flu-like lung disease” that was affecting many people.
“It was at least 40 degrees Celsius outside (104 degrees Fahrenheit) – not a typical flu season,” he said.
In June 2020, the United States Embassy in the capital, Ashgabat, issued a health alert warning of “reports of local citizens with symptoms compatible with Covid-19 undergoing Covid-19 tests” and placed in quarantine up to 14 days.
The Turkmen government immediately called the statement “false news”.
A WHO mission to Turkmenistan in July 2020 did not confirm any coronavirus infection inside the country, but expressed concern about “the increase in the number of cases of acute respiratory infection and pneumonia” .
A WHO official said Turkmenistan should act “as if Covid-19 is circulating”.
At the time, the situation was out of control, according to Myatiev. The government has advised citizens to take bizarre public health measures, such as eating a special type of spicy soup.
In January of this year, Turkmenistan announced that it had approved Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine for use in the country. Then, in June, the World Bank agreed to lend the Turkmen government $ 20 million, mainly for health facilities and construction, as part of a program to “prevent, detect and respond to the threat posed by Covid-19 “.
As late as Tuesday, President Berdymukhamedov said the efforts of the global community to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic were “insufficient”, although he did not mention the situation inside his own country.
“The pandemic has exposed serious systemic failures in the international response to this challenge,” he said.
“Turkmenistan is on fire”
Despite Berdymukhamedov’s claims that his country is Covid-free, the reality in Turkmenistan is radically different, according to journalists and independent activists.
Diana Serebryannik, director of the Europe-based exiles group Rights and Freedoms of Turkmen citizens, said her organization had heard from contacts in the country that hospitals across the country were currently struggling to cope with the influx of cases.
Serebryannik said that Turkmen doctors in his organization who were now living abroad were in contact with their former colleagues in the country, allowing them to find out the real situation and provide advice.
She said doctors in Turkmenistan told her oxygen and ventilators were hard to come by in the country, treatment was expensive, and deaths from the virus could number in the thousands.
“Turkmenistan is burning, it is burning with Covid … Sometimes they don’t even accept patients at the hospital, they just send them home,” she said.
According to Serebryannik, the official cause of death in these cases is not listed as Covid-19 or even pneumonia – instead, medical certificates record a separate condition, such as a heart attack, she said.
When health workers tried to talk about the reality on the ground, they were forced into silence, according to the nonprofit Human Rights Watch.
Inside the country, press freedom and independent oversight are not allowed – Turkmenistan was ranked 178th out of 180 countries and territories in Reporters Without Borders 2021 global press freedom rankings, just above above North Korea and Eritrea.
According to Human Rights Watch, Turkmen citizens who peacefully criticize the government have faced severe penalties, including reports of torture and disappearances.
Foreign residents have also been affected by the Turkmen government’s denials of the coronavirus. In July 2020, Turkish diplomat Kemal Uchkun was admitted to Ashgabat hospital with Covid-like symptoms but was refused permission to evacuate to his home country, according to the Asian Affairs newspaper. .
According to the BBC, x-rays sent to Turkish hospitals by Uchkun’s wife have been confirmed to show evidence of Covid-19.
The Asian Affairs newspaper said Uchkun passed away on July 7. His official cause of death was heart failure.
More recently, Myatiev said he confirmed the death of a 61-year-old Russian language and literature teacher, who had been hospitalized since August, according to Turkmen News.
Undermine the pink image
Many authoritarian governments around the world have announced their Covid-19 epidemics and received international aid, including China, the first affected country.
So why is Turkmenistan insisting until it has seen a single case yet?
Myatiev and Serebryannik said it was up to President Berdymukhamedov who, as a dentist by profession and former health minister, had focused on effective governance of the well-being of his people – at least in principle.
Serebryannik said Berdymukhamedov, 64, wanted to appear as a savior of the country and an impressive world leader, keeping Covid-19 on the outside.
“Turkmenistan is a country where everything in the garden looks pink… you have these marbles, advanced equipment (health facilities) equipped with equipment from Germany, France, Japan, whatever,” the journalist said. Myatiev.
Admitting to the presence of a deadly virus would undermine the idealized image the president created and leave Berdymukhamedov open to criticism – and potentially to be held accountable.
“It would be someone’s failure, someone should take responsibility for it and who has the ultimate say for it? The president,” Myatiev said.
There is no indication yet that Turkmenistan is preparing to reverse its stance and admit to having Covid-19 cases inside the country, but Serebryannik has said she believes the government should eventually do so.
She said there had been “too many deaths”.
Denber of Human Rights Watch said international organizations interacting with Turkmenistan, including the WHO, have a duty to be honest with the world about the situation inside the country.
“At some point you have to say at what cost do you protect this presence (in the country)? Are the steps you take to protect your relationship… undermine your core business? ” she said.
Denber said that in a global pandemic, with many epidemics linked across international borders, countries have an obligation to provide accurate testing and correct public information.
“We are all interconnected,” she said. “When one of us fails, we all fail.”
This story first appeared on CNN.com “This country claims it hasn’t had a single case of Covid-19. Activists say that’s a lie.”