Turkmenistan Makes Face Masks Compulsory but Remains Silent on COVID-19

Turkmenistan has not yet officially acknowledged the presence of COVID-19 in the country, but made the wearing of face masks compulsory from July 13. Berkarar, the largest shopping and entertainment mall in the capital Ashgabat and the popular Tolkuchka market have been closed for quarantine. 

The Turkmen authorities are conducting a public information campaign about the risks of infection and the need to wear face masks. The campaign includes songs about mask wearing on local TV. Traffic police have been seen driving around Ashgabat, telling people through loud speakers to wear a mask when they leave their homes. Other traffic police officers at police posts are stopping all drivers on their way into the city to check that drivers and passengers have masks, various sources told turkmen.news. If they don’t have masks, they have to buy them from the police for one manat each.

According to reports from the coastal city of Turkmenbashi, masks are given free of charge to drivers entering the city. 

Sources in different parts of the country say that antiseptics have run out in most pharmacies, and where they are still available prices have shot up. Masks are very hard to find, so dressmakers are now producing reusable masks at home. Prices for homemade masks range from three manats up to 15 manats, depending on demand and quality.

A WHO mission arrived in Turkmenistan on July 6 in order to assess the coronavirus situation. The team of five public health experts and epidemiologists spent a few days in the eastern city of Turkmenabat. Sources in the region told turkmen.news that cases of COVID-19 had been acknowledged and the WHO experts had been given access to the patients and their medical histories, but “the situation is not so critical”.

The WHO mission is now in Ashgabat. On July 10 the mission members met Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov. The ministry reported the meeting on their website but gave no substantive details of the discussions. The sides did, however, note again “the possibility of the spread of the novel coronavirus through tiny aerosol droplets remaining in the air for some time.”

Neither the mission nor the WHO’s European center has made any statement yet about the presence of coronavirus infections.

COVID-19 tests come back positive but are not recorded. Instead the number of double pneumonia cases is soaring. All those who are thought to have died from COVID were diagnosed with pneumonia or other lung diseases. Doctors who are aware of the real situation think that the officials responsible are deliberately misinforming the president in order to keep their jobs.

Kemal Uckun, an adviser on religious issues at the Turkish embassy in Turkmenistan, died of pneumonia during the night of July 7-8 in the cardiology hospital in Ashgabat. He was buried on July 11 in his hometown of Acipayam in Denizli province, southwest Turkey. More than 100 people attended his funeral prayers despite the authorities calling on people not to do so.

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“He kept asking to be sent home,” a source told turkmen.news. “The Turkish authorities were ready to send an air ambulance to pick him up, but Turkmenistan did not give permission, as officially there is no coronavirus in the country and this is exactly what was wrong with the diplomat.” 

The source said that Kemal Uckun realized on his seventh day in hospital that he had coronavirus. “He had been tested twice for the virus in Turkmenistan, but both tests came back negative,” the source said. “The diplomat was given anti-bacterial and anti-fungal medicine, not anti-virus medicine, and of course they did not improve his condition.”

Then his family sent images of his lungs to doctors in Turkey. They advised Kemal Uckun to return to Turkey for treatment, as they were 99% sure that coronavirus had caused the pneumonia, but the Turkmen authorities would not let him go. Neither the Turkish embassy nor the authorities in Ankara could put pressure on Turkmenistan. The diplomat had no history of lung problems.

Late at night on July 9 Turkmenistan allowed the diplomat’s body to be taken back to Turkey. The air ambulance landed in the town of Denizli on the morning of July 10.

Another high-profile victim of pneumonia was Yagshigeldi Kakaev, the Turkmen president’s oil and gas adviser, who died on July 8 in Ashgabat.

Two sources say that relatives of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, one of them his son-in-law Annanazar Rejepov, are ill with coronavirus or have already recovered. One source in business circles in Ashgabat told turkmen.news that Rejepov’s life was not in danger, while the other said that his condition was serious.

“There are COVID-19 cases in the Foreign Ministry too, in the medical institute, and several medical establishments, for example the Interior Ministry clinic,” a source in Ashgabat said. “In May, student doctors were sent onto the highways without any protective equipment to take the temperatures of drivers and passengers.”

In the past few days turkmen.news has received dozens of reports of deaths from pneumonia and has managed to confirm four cases. An elderly man who had high blood pressure died on June 29. The cause of his death seemed to be pneumonia, but doctors recorded it as a stroke. Straight after the man’s burial, the entrance, stairs, and elevators in his apartment block in northwest Ashgabat were disinfected with chlorine. (Turkmen.news has the man’s full name and address.)

In early July in Ashgabat Bahar Kopekova, a teacher of Russian language and literature at the Republican Music School, died. She was just over 60 years of age. In June she developed a persistent high temperature and a cough. In hospital she was diagnosed with pneumonia and passed away in early July. Sources say that several teachers at the Republican Music School are ill.

On July 5, Batyr Bayrammuradov, head of the Garry Lukman pharmacy in the capital’s Howdan residential district, died. The 48-year-old was diagnosed with pneumonia.

A mathematics teacher at the Pedagogical Institute in Turkmenabat, Babamurat Muhyev, died of pneumonia on July 3. The teacher suffered from diabetes and not long before his death had received treatment at the endocrinology department. A few days later he developed a cough and had difficulty breathing. It is not known for sure where he caught the virus – it could have been at work, in hospital or from his wife who is the head doctor at polyclinic No. 2 in Turkmenabat.

In early July the British embassy in Ashgabat organized a series of webinars on COVID-19 presented by British doctors to their Turkmen counterparts.