Carrefour Asia | Central Asia
Ultimately, the WHO must treat Turkmenistan as it is. This doesn’t mean that harsh reviews of the two aren’t equally needed.
“From a scientific point of view, it is unlikely that the virus will not circulate in Turkmenistan,” said Catherine Smallwood, WHO emergency officer. told the BBC this week, referring to the new coronavirus. As the BBC report notes: “Smallwood’s comments represent WHO’s first public challenge to Turkmenistan’s claim” that the country has not seen a single case of COVID-19.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Turkmenistan has remained one of the some countries who have officially recorded no case of disease, no trace of virus. Most of the rest are small Pacific island states; North Korea is also part of the group.
The case of Turkmenistan highlights the position in which international institutions such as the World Health Organization find themselves – and find themselves harshly criticized. When asked by the BBC if Turkmenistan was providing fake data, Smallwood – who led a WHO delegation to Turkmenistan in July 2020 – refused. She said the WHO could not “question whether a country is acting in the spirit of the International Health Regulations.” Smallwood stressed the importance of “building a dialogue” and said the evolution of Turkmenistan’s mask-wearing policy is a positive development.
At the start of the pandemic, authorities in Turkmenistan fined people wearing face masks, saying they “were trying to create panic”, as a Turkmen told The Diplomat in August 2020. This policy was reversed after the WHO visit in July, with mandatory masks and social distancing encouraged. There were always political reasons, but never the truth: the Turkmen authorities justified the mask’s mandate by invoking toxic dust.
Recent comments by WHO officials, as the BBC titled its article, “cast doubt on” Turkmenistan’s claims. But did anyone outside of Turkmenistan seriously believe these claims? The answer is no; but less is known about what people inside Turkmenistan think, those directly affected by government policies and demands. It’s hard to imagine how much lying about the reality of the pandemic can lead to anything other than confusion.
It is also difficult to understand how the WHO could criticize Turkmenistan as harshly as many hoped and continue to work with the country.
While the Turkmen government has maintained its COVID-free claims, it has also engaged with initiatives to access vaccines, received a World Bank loan of $ 20 million to address the health and social impacts of the pandemic, and was the first country in the world to require all adults to be vaccinated.
Although a second planned mission to Turkmenistan by WHO never took place, the organization’s engagement with the country continued.
In August 2021, WHO organized a training course in Ashgabat focusing on “new guidelines and technologies for the systematic collection of epidemiological data relating to influenza, acute respiratory infections (ARI) and COVID-19”. This follows the delivery of new laboratory equipment specifically to expand testing capacity for COVID-19.
According to the WHO, in 2020-2021, Turkmenistan received around $ 2.8 million in supplies and equipment “to ensure that health agencies are prepared for the spread of acute respiratory infections, including COVID-19.”
In October, WHO Regional Director for Europe, Hans Kluge, traveled to Turkmenistan to speak at a forum on the fight against infectious diseases. Kluge stressed the importance of primary care and the need to invest in health care infrastructure.
According to the WHO press release regarding the visit, Kluge “also stressed that transparent communications are vital at all levels, from the community upwards”.
An organization like the WHO engages in a difficult and delicate dance to maintain viable relations with a government as autocratic, insular and eccentric as that of Turkmenistan. But at the end of the day, the WHO must treat Turkmenistan for what it is, as difficult as it may be – and leave the well-deserved scathing criticism to others.