Uzbek authorities seemed to be prepared for the looming health crisis once it became apparent the coronavirus was becoming a global pandemic.
The first official case in Uzbekistan of the virus — which first originated in China — was reported on March 15.
A week later, Uzbekistan closed all its borders and the government ordered quarantine centers set up to temporarily house mainly migrant workers that would be returning from abroad in the coming weeks. It also created a special department to run the centers.
Although Uzbekistan seemed to be doing quite well in confronting the coronavirus early on, the situation soon seemed to start spiraling out of control.
But was it ever really under control?
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, reported on January 17 about a wave of flu that had hit the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.
It was the usual annual flu, but the children’s department of the Tashkent provincial hospital was overwhelmed and children — some with high fevers — were forced to sit or lie down and wait on the floor of the hospital’s reception area.
Tashkent is, of course, in Tashkent Province, and so is most of the country’s money, its fanciest stores, and the best-equipped medical facilities. If that was the situation at one of main hospitals in Tashkent Province, one can only guess what the conditions were like in some of the regional hospitals far from the capital.
Officials in Kazakhstan reported their first cases of the coronavirus on March 13, just two days before Uzbek authorities made their announcement.
On April 16, Kazakhstan’s Tengrinews website reported that “Uzbekistan has passed Kazakhstan in the number of those ill with coronavirus.”
The report said that as of “April 15 at 22:30” in Uzbekistan there were 1,302 registered cases of the coronavirus, while in Kazakhstan the figure was 1,295.
That Uzbekistan would have more cases than any other country in Central Asia seemed inevitable: the population of Uzbekistan is more than 34 million, while Kazakhstan, the next most populous country in Central Asia, has some 18.7 million people.
Perhaps even more importantly, at least 2 million Uzbek citizens — some say this figure may actually be double — are migrant laborers working abroad, most of them in Russia.
On May 29, Uzbek First Deputy Labor Minister Erkin Muhitdinov said nearly 500,000 of these migrant workers had already returned to Uzbekistan because they had lost their jobs in other countries.
More have come home since then and most came through Russia, by bus or car, often spending time in makeshift camps on the Russian-Kazakh border with hundreds of other migrants waiting for permission to cross into Kazakhstan and make their way back to Uzbekistan.
The chance of being infected and spreading the virus in such conditions should have noticeably increased under such circumstances.
But for some reason, the number of reported cases in Kazakhstan continued to climb, while in Uzbekistan the number rose only slightly and, to date, Uzbekistan has not reported a single day of double-digit deaths, very unusual when compared with four of its five neighboring countries. (Turkmenistan claims to not have had anyone die from COVID-19.)
As of July 29, Kazakhstan had more than 86,000 reported infections and 793 deaths from the coronavirus, while Uzbekistan had some 22,100 cases and just 127 deaths.
Good Idea That Didn’t Quite Work
Uzbek authorities did establish quarantine areas in every province, but there were problems with them from the very beginning.
Less than two weeks after the announcement of the first case of the coronavirus in Uzbekistan, there were already more than 28,000 people in quarantine centers.
Many such places crammed beds into a limited number of rooms and often four, six, or even more people were sleeping in the same room. Some areas were actually cargo containers arranged in rows that resembled refugee camps. Hastily arranged dining facilities were often spaces accommodating dozens of people at one time.
Kyrgyzstan’s newly appointed health minister, Sabirzhan Abdikarimov, said on April 3 that such quarantine centers in his country created conditions for spreading the virus.
No Uzbek official has said such a thing, but on July 20, Ozodlik reported that of 566 cases of the coronavirus registered in the previous 24 hours, 110 were in quarantine centers. On July 15, Ozodlik reported that of 494 new cases registered in the previous 24 hours, 303 were in quarantine areas.
There have also been reports of ill treatment and some suicides in these quarantine areas.
Small wonder there have been riots in some of the centers, such as the one at the Urtasarai quarantine center in Tashkent Province on July 9. Some people there complained they had been waiting nearly a month to be cleared to leave and go home, even though the standard observation period is 14 days.
No Hospital Space, No Medicine
If it was heavily burdened before, the health-care system now appears to be severely overloaded.
Dilorom Abduvahabov is a doctor who was assigned to ambulance duty. He has sent messages to authorities to tell them he and his co-workers do not have the proper protective clothing for their work, but he told Ozodlik his appeals have gone unanswered.
People complain that when they call for an ambulance they are often advised to call a different number. Many consider it useless to even try to call for an ambulance.
For those fortunate few who do manage to have an ambulance come to their home, there is often no room at any hospitals.
And not only have some of the cash bonuses promised to medical workers been slow in coming, in some cases their regular wages have not been paid on time.
Additionally, Ozodlik reported doctors, nurses, and workers at quarantine centers were being forced to sign a waiver promising not to make any claims against the government if they contract the coronavirus.
A Eurasianet report from July 24 noted shortages of medicine and ambulance services so overwhelmed that there is almost no possibility of help in a regular emergency.
Ozodlik has reported that people have bought almost all of the medicine available — even that which does nothing to help coughs, fever, or breathing problems — and that some are turning to the black market to buy medicine of unknown origin and dubious quality.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has criticized various government officials, including the health minister, for their failures to control the spread of the virus, and all 11 district chiefs of Tashkent had to appear on television and apologize for failing their constituents in the fight against the coronavirus.
The coronavirus has also killed many health-care workers, including Holishon Jalolova, who according to her family had been working with a fever because of the crush of people with the coronavirus at the hospital in Tashkent’s Yakkasaray district.
Jalolova’s daughter, Mukambar Umarova, 48, said her mother worked in the Disease Control and Prevention Department for 20 years but that she herself had been tested too late for COVID-19 and shouldn’t have been working while sick. Umarova added that her mother had not been given the extra wages and added benefits that had been promised to health workers by the government.