Last month Mariam Kiparoidze reported how the government of Turkmenistan has refused to acknowledge the existence of coronavirus — despite the nation’s hospitals being overwhelmed with patients exhibiting symptoms similar to those of Covid-19.

Under legislation introduced on September 7, the people of Turkmenistan — one of the world’s most isolated and repressive regimes — now face jail terms of two to five years if they escape hospitals or avoid treatment for conditions “recognized as dangerous infectious diseases of an epidemic or pandemic nature.“ 

This amendment to the country’s criminal code was signed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, but Turkmenistan has yet to confirm a single coronavirus case within its borders. 

“Cover-ups like this when a country is in crisis generate confusion, rumors and public distrust,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, via email. “The government’s response to this — creating criminal penalties for ‘maliciously evading treatment’ is wrong and counterproductive. Laws creating criminal sanctions for spreading Covid-19 are not a legitimate or proportionate response to the threat posed by the virus. Criminalization might also have negative public health consequences, including discouraging people from seeking testing and care.”

In July, a team of experts from the World Health Organization was permitted to enter Turkmenistan. While the group did not report any coronavirus cases, it recommended that state authorities act as if the disease was present in the country. 

Since then, the government has adopted measures to combat the spread of infectious diseases. However, they are inconsistent and confusing to the public. Mosques are closed, transportation is restricted and large gatherings have been banned, including recent celebrations for Eid al-Adha, one of the most important holy days in Islam. Yet some public events have been allowed to go ahead.

People are fined for not wearing masks, officially mandated to protect residents against toxic dust carried into the country by the wind. According to opposition media operating outside the country, those who cannot afford to pay the $17 penalty are punished by being made to pick cotton.

Reports also show growing numbers of people are dying after presenting symptoms similar to those of Covid-19. Reportedly, authorities in one region ordered that new graves be as flat as possible, so they are not visible to satellite imaging.

Diana Serebryannik fled Turkmenistan in 2010. She runs an activist group that now focuses on providing information on how to treat and protect against the coronavirus to medics and ordinary people in Turkmenistan. She said most of the country’s doctors do not know how to care for potential Covid-19 patients. 

“They don’t have instruments, equipment or enough knowledge. They don’t know how to deal with it,” Serebryannik explained. 

Meanwhile, Berdymukhamedov has attempted to take people’s minds off the pandemic. In July, he shared photographs of his domestic summer vacation. They showed him fishing and horse riding while wearing a mask. Upon his return in August, he unveiled his newest book, “The Spiritual World of the Turkmen.” According to the state news agency, this volume is dedicated to the “centuries-old traditions of the Turkmen people and their national foundations.” 

The government has also set out to change the constitution, with the aim of “further democratization of state and public life.” However, activists abroad believe that this really translates as Berdymukhamedov finding ways to transfer his power to his family.

Illustration by Gogi Kamushadze