Diana Serebryannik grew up in Turkmenistan, where her two sisters studied for years to become doctors. Her sister Yulia’s husband was once the national minister of horse breeding, but in 2002 he fell out of favor with the dictator Saparmurat Nyazov and ended up serving six years in jail on charges of abuse of power and negligence. From then on, the whole family faced years of harassment and intimidation, even after his release. 

“It was almost impossible to live there,” Serebryannik said of her family’s life in Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most isolated and authoritarian countries. “They confiscated everything.”

Serebryannik fled to Moscow in 2010 and, after many attempts, Yulia and the rest of her family joined her. Even there, persecution that they believe was orchestrated by Turkmenistan continued.

“We were threatened again, they tried to kidnap my daughter twice, when she was four and six months old, so we were afraid to go outside with her, and I was attacked with a knife.” she said.

In 2016, the family were granted asylum in Europe. They do not wish to disclose where, for fear of further attacks. However, once settled, the family founded an activist group named Rights and Freedoms of Turkmen Citizens, to support those struggling within the country. The organization previously concentrated on drawing attention to human rights abuses and offering support to people struggling within the country. However, since March, it has been almost exclusively occupied with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

While other nations around the world have recorded large numbers of cases and deaths, launched testing programs and imposed strict lockdowns, the Turkmen government has yet to confirm a single case of Covid-19. Instead, for the past six months, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Niyazov’s successor, has responded to the pandemic with denial, secrecy and disinformation.

Now scores of Turkmen are turning to human rights groups or overseas-based opposition media, desperate for information about a virus their government says does not exist.

“Right now, we are of course focused on the coronavirus inside the country, because without an exaggeration, it is a disaster,” said Diana. “People are dying.”

From a small office, RFTC’s team, which includes three doctors, works around the clock to provide advice on the prevention and treatment of the virus to Turkmen citizens starved of reliable information. According to Diana, the group is also preparing to launch a specialist hotline, in order to address the rapidly rising demand for its services.

Turkmenistan’s state-controlled media has done everything it can to amplify the president’s messages and ignore the pandemic. However, human rights groups and opposition media outlets based outside of the country are reporting a surge of cases within the country.

Turkmen activists I spoke to say confusion in the country is overwhelming. Up until a couple of weeks ago, people who chose to wear masks were reportedly being fined by the authorities. 

“People were fined for masks and now they are getting a totally contradictory message saying, ‘You’ll be fined for not wearing it.’ So, to ordinary people, it’s very confusing, but they are cooperating,” said Aynabat Yaylymova, of the overseas-based Turkmen-language public health initiative Saglyk.org.

“There’s even fear in the air in Turkmenistan,” explained Hanum Rasulova, an Istanbul-based activist with the rights group SES Turkmenia Unite. “People are dying because of Covid-19, but our country doesn’t say it officially.” 

Last month Rasulova, along with other Turkmen nationals living in Istanbul, began to stage street protests against the Turkmenistan government’s pandemic response. Rasulova added that the crisis has been compounded by a steadily worsening economic situation and that people have reached out to her, complaining of poverty and hunger.

Instead of addressing this pressing health crisis, Turkmen state media has published glowing reports of national celebrations, such as Horse Day in April and Carpet Day in May. In the early stages of the pandemic, the closest Berdymukhammedov came to acknowledging the existence of the coronavirus was when he called a March government meeting and ordered all public spaces to be fumigated with smoke from an indigenous grass known as harmala. Doing so, he said, would provide protection against infectious diseases. 

Since then, a handful of opposition media outlets operating outside the country have reported rocketing incidences of Covid-19 symptoms, cases of pneumonia and deaths.

In April, the World Health Organization decided to send an expert mission to Turkmenistan. However, citing logistical difficulties, the team was unable to enter the country until July 6. At the end of the visit, the WHO issued a statement, saying that Turkmenistan had registered no coronavirus cases, but advised the government to act as if the virus was present within the country. The WHO followed up by sending a plane full of personal protective equipment to Turkmenabat International Airport on July 16.

Since then, travel has been restricted across the country, mosques, markets and shopping centers have been closed, and the government has made the wearing of masks compulsory in public places. But, officially, Covid-19 still does not exist in Turkmenistan. According to the government, increased air pollution and high concentrations of dust are the reasons for mandatory face coverings

“There’s zero public communication, there was zero public communication in February, March, April and even a part of May,” said Yaylymova, adding that the absence of strong, science-based communication is placing the physical and mental health of citizens at risk.

Ruslan Myatiev, an editor at the Netherlands-based website Turkmen.News, told me that he is receiving rising reports of pneumonia symptoms within the country and a growing number of messages from readers asking for information about the coronavirus.

This dearth of information is not just affecting the general public. According to Diana Serebryannik, doctors and hospital staff lack the basic knowledge required to treat patients with Covid-19 symptoms.

She explained that doctors from her organization have been providing advice on medicines and patient care to doctors within the country. Many medical professionals in Turkmenistan lack personal protective equipment and few are adequately trained to use the country’s scant supply of ventilators, she explained.

“What they have are simple masks, simple gloves that they buy with their own money,” said Serebryannik. “They’re getting sick. Lots of doctors have died.”

She added that personnel from the Turkmen security services are routinely stationed in hospitals. “They have authority to come in every time, no matter what a doctor is doing. They even have authority to go into a surgery room.”

Doctors are apparently also under state pressure to not report respiratory problems or pneumonia as primary symptoms in patients. 

“That kind of pressure is completely inappropriate and completely contrary to public health,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division.

According to Serebryannik, the Turkmen government put on a show for the WHO’s visiting team of experts, taking them to well-resourced hospitals with no Covid-19 patients.

“If you look very carefully at the WHO statement, that statement said that they didn’t find a single reported case of Covid-19, and that might be true,” said Denber. “It might be absolutely true that people have tested positive, but the cases don’t get reported.”

“What we’re dealing with is a carefully constructed alternative reality — or an alternative non-reality.” 

Illustration by Gogi Kamushadze