Trust and transparency central to improved COVID-19 responses in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan16 July 2020
Mistrust and scepticism of government efforts to fight COVID-19 have made it harder to contain the pandemic’s spread. Ilya Jones explores how the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can better respond to the virus and people’s concerns.
COVID-19 is challenging governments around the world. While some are enjoying a surge in support, others have floundered and found themselves on shakier ground than before the outbreak of the pandemic.
In Central Asia, the picture is mixed. Early and aggressive measures in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan initially earned these countries praise, but this has now been marred by questionable numbers of cases and deaths and a second wave of infections. Kyrgyzstan took early action to contain the virus, but stumbled over its enforcement – from reports of heavy-handed tactics and misinformation, to concerns of corruption and privacy violations. Now it faces a deadly second wave of infections. In Tajikistan, the government’s delayed response cost lives, many of whom were frontline workers or elderly, and its flouting of preventive practices did little to stem the spread of the virus.
COVID-19 is also putting social tensions and governance shortcomings centre-stage in Central Asia. In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the first wave exposed a lack of public trust in the state, which worsened the impact of the crisis and negatively affected peace and security. In Kyrgyzstan, rumours and at times damaging information about the virus have been shared widely among citizens. People see their officials disregard government advice on preventive practices. In Tajikistan, the government’s denial in March and April that there were any cases despite a string of unexplained deaths has meant that few trust its advice, leading to confusion across the country.
The story so far
In the early days of the pandemic, Tajikistan’s government – ruled by President Emomali Rahmon – resorted to deflection. It announced that it had no cases despite mounting evidence to the contrary. To prove its argument, it held extravagant public gatherings in the face of rising numbers of infections and deaths. After admitting to a number of cases on 30 April, it was clear the official numbers were underestimates – leading to an alternate, unofficial count. The government hesitated to put in place strict measures on movement, and its support for small businesses in trouble was delayed (although welcomed when it arrived). Funding for official responses to COVID-19 came, but there was little information on how this money was being spent. While the public was not surprised about the response, it has entrenched feelings of disillusionment and mistrust.
On the flipside, Tajikistan’s civil society jumped into action, proving its vitality and relevance. These groups – many of which focus specifically on the adverse effects of COVID-19 on women, young people or people with disabilities – gained the trust of the public by delivering vital personal protection supplies, food and services including online health consultations and psychological support. Through discussions with civil society networks, Saferworld has written about how this allowed organisations who have long been side-lined in Tajikistan to help affected communities more openly and with greater public support in a way that demonstrates their value and gives voice to people’s concerns. It has given them more political space to advocate for further inclusion in decision-making on COVID-19 responses and transparency of information. Civil society organisations have appealed to the president to reject further restrictions on media and free speech.
In Kyrgyzstan, the government’s early action was decisive but there was mistrust of official information. Many saw the restrictions as politically-motivated or as a means to suppress the opposition, limiting the rights of journalists, protesters and even online opposition, although many of these restrictions were eased later on. This has included the well-documented disruption of a women’s day protest in March, as well as warnings against subsequent anti-corruption and anti-censorship protests. Several cases came to light of doctors’ public retractions of complaints about working conditions, and stories of misconduct and bribery during the lockdown period. There are also concerns that funds are not being spent transparently and that medical equipment is being purchased by the government at inflated prices.
One significant concern in Kyrgyzstan is legislation that has been given new life because of the pandemic. A recent bill on restricting internet freedom, allegedly to prevent misinformation, easily passed in parliament. The legislation was vague and could be used against political dissent. Another law introducing burdensome reporting requirements for non-governmental organisations, although now temporarily dropped, drew criticism for its potential impact on civil society responses to COVID-19 and other issues.
Now, facing a rapidly rising caseload – especially in the capital Bishkek where space in hospitals is running out – the public largely sees the government’s response as inadequate, with increasing calls to share information on how money is being spent and how to access vital services.
Building trust and improving transparency
The COVID-19 situation in Central Asia is still uncertain and will require collective action to strengthen preventive measures as the virus spreads. Cases are spiking in Kyrgyzstan after a relaxation of restrictions and a second lockdown is not off the table for the near future. Improved trust in the state’s response will lead to greater adherence to government measures and more effective containment of the virus. Down the line, renewed trust between CSOs and the government will improve cooperation and partnerships on responses to peace and security. They should build on the few areas where trust and cooperation has been stronger so they can continue to inform a more inclusive approach.
Transparency is crucial. Tajikistan has been particularly tight-lipped about COVID-19 and its impact, and the government’s efforts to restrict information – by blocking the unofficial count of deaths, or by withholding accreditation for journalists – have been counterproductive.
In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, there are calls for both governments to be transparent about how they are spending money to respond to COVID-19. There needs to be increased access to transparent and reliable information for civil society organisations. International donors and advocacy groups should also push for this information to be made public, and funding should be given to service providers and activists that enjoy public trust – especially those that normally struggle to access funding but are carrying out essential work. There have been some promising developments – in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region in Tajikistan, where the governor was once the head of the Aga Khan Foundation in the country, information on expenditure has been more forthcoming and open to public scrutiny.
The crucial role of civil society and the public should be recognised and reflected in decision-making through collaborative platforms, such as community police partnership teams or public councils. Responses – not just to the pandemic but to its effects, such as increased gender-based violence – must be sensitive to conflict and gender dynamics identified by communities, and women’s organisations are best placed to inform and lead these GBV responses. Having the role of civil society and the public reflected in decision-making will ensure that responses do not enflame tensions within and between communities, and that they are responsive to the needs of marginalised and vulnerable groups.
COVID-19 isn’t going away, so now is a critical point for governments in Central Asia to learn from the early days of their response. They can listen to and work with communities and civil society, prioritise security responses that address people’s needs, and be open about their actions. There are important implications for the role of the authorities, who should act within the rule of law and adopt an approach that is centred on people’s rights. By doing so, any renewed efforts to contain the spread of the virus will enjoy greater success and make a resurgence less damaging.