Comment & analysis

Civil society reimagined: building on COVID-19 activism in Tajikistan

22 June 2020 Olimjon Bakhtaliev, Ilya Jones and Nurangez Abdulhamidova Civil society reimagined: building on COVID-19 activism in Tajikistan

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on Tajikistan, compounded by the slow response of the government as compared to some of its Central Asian neighbours. While the crisis has exposed some of the weaknesses of decision-making institutions in ensuring the safety and security of citizens, it has also reaffirmed the important role that civil society organisations play in addressing people’s basic needs.

In late April, Tajikistan’s authorities finally acknowledged the presence of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country after a long period of denial, mysterious deaths, a spike in ‘pneumonia’ cases, packed hospitals and reports from the few independent media outlets in the country. The announcement came just ahead of the arrival of a World Health Organization expert mission to Tajikistan, which had come to shed light on the situation in the country. Although the authorities had taken some limited preventive measures – such as closing the country’s borders, stopping flights and organising quarantines for those returning from abroad – few concrete steps were taken after the first cases were acknowledged. This contributed to a rapidly worsening crisis and pushed the population to turn to community-led action and alternative means of assistance.

Less than a month after admitting to having COVID-19 cases, Tajikistan already had one of the highest death tolls in the Central Asia region, even according to the official count. While the state has provided some support in building facilities to treat cases and by providing tax breaks for small and medium-sized businesses and the tourism industry, this support has come late, after many have already felt the impacts of the pandemic. Health workers have received little government support, with many buying their own protective gear or getting them as donations from fundraising groups. Under these conditions, people have taken matters into their own hands and have ramped up their involvement in the health and safety of their communities. Despite having long been sidelined by those in power, Tajikistan’s civil society has seen renewed activism and unmatched mobilisation in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis to fill the gaps in the official response.

Civil society steps up

Before the announcement of COVID-19, the mysterious circumstances surrounding the spike in ‘pneumonia’ cases, closed-off burials, and the lack of information or action from the authorities meant that civil society organisations and the independent media assumed the function of watchdog, providing information through social media and other channels. After the pandemic was officially confirmed, volunteers and activists, including entrepreneurs, health workers, the media, civil society groups and the general public, mobilised and joined efforts to provide health workers with personal protective equipment and hot meals. They also raised awareness among the population on preventive measures such as washing hands, maintaining distance and wearing masks – while focusing on helping vulnerable groups such as rural communities or those with limited internet access. Many health workers volunteered to provide free online consultations to those in need through social media, helping maintain social distancing and reducing risk by allowing people to stay at home.

Saferworld-supported Public Councils (sub-national consultative and monitoring bodies set up by the government to encourage citizen input on police reform) also joined in, and have provided support to health facilities and vulnerable groups during the crisis. The Public Council on Police Reform under the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Dushanbe actively cooperated with restaurants and cafes to provide hospitals with regular hot meals, while working with entrepreneurs and providing health workers with personal protective equipment. Supported by Saferworld and civil society partners, local Community Policing Partnership Teams – which are made up of a range of members, including diverse community and civil society representatives, youth and women’s committees, local leaders and authorities – have purchased and delivered personal protective equipment to health workers and raised awareness among communities on the spread and prevention of COVID-19. They have mobilised volunteers on the frontline to deliver supplies and raise awareness, and have organised donations to support the most vulnerable communities.

Health workers equipped by medical supplies provided by Saferworld to the partners in Sughd Region, northern Tajikistan.

As civil society has filled the gaps during the crisis, people continue to be disillusioned by what was happening at the government level. With the Ministry of Health and Social Protection of Population under-reporting the number of cases, an alternative tally of cases and deaths has been set up by activists to keep track of the real situation by gathering its statistics through an online survey shared with the public. The number of deaths reported through the survey is much higher than compared to official statistics. This has also encouraged people to stay vigilant in the face of the pandemic’s spread. However, the government attempted to block this website (which also houses information on humanitarian aid provision) along with other media sources – with the justification that the site is spreading panic. The Ministry of Health and the Prosecutor General's Office have also warned activists to not share information they deemed to be inflammatory.

While international organisations had difficulty tracking how aid was being spent locally, civil society had an ear to the ground and, with the encouragement of the public on social media, began to be part of the monitoring process. For example, at the request of civil society, UNICEF become a central coordinator for how aid is being spent across the country. Because they don’t have access to all communities they have coordinated closely with civil society networks to gain an accurate picture of the situation in different areas. They then relay this information to international donors and to the public to help inform responses and raise public awareness. There have been other promising developments, such as in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region where, prompted by civil society, the regional government has begun reporting on funding disbursements in relation to its COVID-19 response.   

Thanks to their work and open communications with communities over the course of the pandemic, civil society organisations have increasingly become known as an effective bridge between people, local authorities and international organisations. These organisations, including those that are part of networks like the Saferworld-supported Civil Society Platform, are in touch with health workers and humanitarian workers, helping collect data and track aid expenditure – in spite of their limited role and mandate, as well as pressure from the government against monitoring.

Going forward

Saferworld spoke with several civil society partners who had concrete recommendations for how the situation can be better addressed. First, there are some basic steps the government can take to restore trust and mitigate the damage of the pandemic – for example, by sharing accurate information about COVID-19 with its citizens and putting in place lockdown measures as soon as possible to ensure the pandemic does not spread even more. Less than a month after the first cases were acknowledged, official figures show a huge spike in infections and deaths.

The government could also boost investment in the healthcare sector, which is severely underfunded and ill-equipped to deal with the crisis. This should include higher wages and the provision of all necessary medical and personal protective equipment, supplies and aid – especially for primary healthcare workers and their families. People have welcomed recent positive moves in providing tax exemptions or breaks for small and medium businesses who face the additional economic downturn brought on by the pandemic, as well as putting in place some price controls on crucial goods. This support should be expanded into other sectors. The government could also reduce utility costs and improve internet quality and accessibility, especially by reducing tariffs to be in line with wages. Finally, it can help encourage civil society organisations to play a more active role in monitoring humanitarian aid and can include them in local-level decision-making.

The international community, which plays a large support role in Tajikistan, can adjust funding priorities and invest in civil society organisations to ensure that their funding reaches intended communities (including funding that is earmarked for specific marginalised groups) and is spent in a transparent way that is open to public scrutiny. Given the current lack of restrictions, they can call for the government to implement measures that follow international sanitary standards, especially in ensuring healthy working conditions for those jobs where people are at greater risk. They can support the strengthening of mechanisms for monitoring aid and improving media coverage of decisions taken by the government and on the spread of the virus throughout the country.

For its part, civil society could scale up engagement on both the distribution and monitoring of humanitarian aid at all levels – national, sub-national and local – which should continue to strengthen public trust in their ability to respond to crises and push for change. They should also continue to collect and base their responses on data that accurately represents the local-level picture, and work to build on the momentum of the last month of effective coordination with government and international organisations. They can also continue to build on their work with communities to strengthen resilience and locally led response to crises and threats.

Civil society reimagined in a time of crisis

Despite the challenges it faces, civil society in Tajikistan has rapidly mobilised its resources to adapt and respond to the pandemic. This collective activism during the crisis has helped alleviate some of the suffering brought by COVID-19 and has strengthened public trust in the role civil society can play to respond to crises and threats. It is crucial that the momentum and support (material, financial and rhetorical) continues – not just from civil society itself, but also from the public, the government and from international organisations – to ensure that space remains open for discussion and action on a range of issues directly affecting Tajikistan’s people during the COVID-19 crisis and into the future.

Since the end of the civil war, civil society has never been as united or enjoyed as much public trust as it does now. This could be a new start – one in which the government recognises the importance of these groups and activists, and instead of sidelining them, starts supporting and working with them. Civil society itself should build on the momentum to enhance its dialogue with the state, provide solutions to shared problems and use their expertise and networks to advocate for improved responses to crises and the primary security concerns of communities.

As in many parts of the world, where COVID-19 is exposing inequalities and causing people to question the effectiveness of systems and institutions tasked with protecting them, so too have people in Tajikistan begun to see the importance of activism, volunteerism and in taking the initiative in the face of government inaction.

Photo credit: Gulnora Kholiqova