Pandemic helps authoritarian states in Central Asia – A glimpse of Tajikistan

By Umedjon Majidi, Political analyst based in Sarajevo (BiH)

Emergency situations tend to help authoritarian nations to become more authoritarian, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. When democratic institutions are weak or non-existent, executives may use the emergency situation to tighten one of the main principles of the democratic process: freedom of speech and access to information. In the absence of checks and balances, office holders have an incentive to tighten control over independent sources of information that may contradict official data.

In Denial

Countries with strongman rulers maintain legitimacy through a tacit agreement with the electorate that they will provide stability and security in exchange for a loss of democratic freedoms. An uncontrolled pandemic, which relies not on the decisive action of a single leader but instead on effective public health institutions, educated doctors, and most of all, personal responsibility of individual citizens, is a nightmare scenario for these leaders.

As COVID-19 spread around the world, one by one, illiberal regimes struggled to keep a lid on information that countered the narrative of strong and decisive leadership from the top. First, China and later around the world, there was a trend of leaders making unproven or demonstrably false claims minimizing the severity of the virus; while this was not limited to authoritarian states, it was most common to those countries where leaders regularly attack the free press, including otherwise democratic countries that are led by right-wing populists.

The case of Tajikistan provides an interesting study on impact of pandemic on its governance structure.  Despite sharing a border with China and being surrounded by countries that had registered hundreds of positive COVID-19 cases by March 2020, Tajikistan was one of the last countries in the world to announce that the virus had been detected, following the strategy of denial, ahead of only a few island states, North Korea and Turkmenistan. Health authorities in this Central Asian country insisted that due to weather changes, its citizens were catching pneumonia, which was registered as increasing but was supposedly not linked to COVID-19.

“No Confirmed Cases”

From early spring until end of April, official authorities did not recognize the existence of the pandemic in Tajikistan and avoided adopting any preventive policy measures, beyond closing the airport in early March 2020. Rumors ran rampant of cases in certain hospitals, as well as widespread speculation that the government was covering up the existence of the disease due to political considerations that had significance to the country’s elite. Mass celebrations of the Navruz Holiday on March 21st were meant to be a showing of national unity in preparation for the election of the new head of the Senate on April 20, which brought President Emomali Rahmon’s son Rustam Emomali one step closer to becoming the new head of state. During this period, state media and government sources regularly reported that there were “no confirmed cases of COVID-19,” a statement that was impossible to disprove, as in fact, no cases were confirmed. During this time, the World Health Organization played a questionable role in promoting the official line, repeating the claim that the were no confirmed cases without commenting further on whether adequate measures were being taken to detect cases.

Social media 

Nonetheless, citizens of Tajikistan noticed that there was increased incidence of atypical respiratory diseases, beyond what had already been a difficult flu season. This seemed to be confirmed in May 2020, when the government acknowledged that there were indeed excess cases, but they were pneumonia, not COVID-19. Citizens and civil society organizations in Social network like Facebook Group – Coronavirus: Tajikistan, wanted accurate, official information, as neighboring countries were already announcing their daily case count and enacting a variety of measures that were not being taken in Tajikistan. When they could not receive any official information, social activists created an informal COVID-19 patient statistics website. The COVID-19 Death Reporting in Tajikistan website, www.kvtj.info, allowed individuals to self-report on COVID-19 patients, thus providing a running list that included both infection and death, as well as a list of external assistance for responding to COVID-19. As of 13 November 2020, the site estimates the number of deaths as 446, compared with the Government’s official figure of 85 while keeping the number of COVID-19 positive cases between 38 to 40 cases per day.

Screenshot from kvtj.info – the citizens’ informal website for tracking COVID-19 related deaths in Tajikistan

From the end of April, the Government of Tajikistan acknowledged that there have been COVID-19 cases in the country, but with much lower numbers than reported on the civil society website. The current picture shows a rapid decline in cases, portraying the image of a country that has decisively acted to slow the spread of the virus. For comparison, while Tajikistan has the lowest GDP per capita in post-Soviet Central Asia and has relatively poorer health indicators than its neighbors (including the highest incidence of TB), by 13 November it the unified Tajikistan portal on COVID-19 reported only 11534 COVID-19 cases, however unofficially the number is much higher (see figure below).

Cases of infectedCases of RestoredCases of deathCases of infected per day
www.covid.tj (Tajikistan national portal on Covid) – dated November 13, 2020

No News (from authorities) is Bad News (for us)

In March and April, tension escalated online between those who supported the Government’s insistence that there were no cases, and those who questioned it. Across social media, common critiques of civil society initiatives were so widespread and oddly repetitive as to suggest a concerted government campaign. The most common accusation, that activists were, in Russian, panikyori, had ominous echoes going back as far as Stalinist times to describe a citizen or citizens who promote a lie or fake news around the population and create a chaos. Similar wording was widespread in Russia, where people were prosecuted for spreading false information, but in fact they just countered government narrative.

On this backdrop, the Government of Tajikistan on 04 July 2020 has amended Code of Criminal Offences, entering a new statute into the Criminal code making it illegal to publish information about COVID-19 that is not from official sources, specifically the Press Department of the Ministry of Health and Social Protection’s COVID-Response Unit, overseen by the Executive Office: publishing fake or unchecked news on printed media or social media (fine from $50 and $1100), only official statistic should be considered an exact information, introducing a fine for not wearing a face mask in public places (fine between $10 and $30); contracting other person with COVID-19 virus involves arrest for up to 5 years.

From anecdotal evidence provided by activists who are afraid to post critical information online, and from a noticeable drop in posts on online forums such as the Facebook page Coronavirus: Tajikistan, it appears that the new law has served its purpose of minimizing independent reporting and analysis of COVID-19 in Tajikistan.

It appears that in this small country with relatively low use of social media, high cost of internet (and also slowest in the world after Algeria and Venezuela)and restricted press, it is still possible for the government to control the narrative and claim success against COVID-19, without providing compelling evidence for why its outcomes have been so much more successful than its neighbors.

It was expected this all was done to have a smooth Presidential Election (which happened on October 11) and without a panic, and the government reaction would change afterward, in post-election period the official statistic would tell more real state of coronavirus in the country and its impact on economy and governance. However, the trend of official statistic shows that no dramatic change observed – the trends shows the daily contraction is artificially put to 38-40 cases per day. But according to the World Health Organization, the COVID-19 does not work this way – contraction happen diabolically, every COVID-19 infected person can contract at least 2 persons.

www.covid.tj

Governments around the world have faced a crisis of legitimacy in responding to COVID-19. Even the most transparent, accountable governments have struggled to demonstrate that they are doing the best possible job of protecting their citizens. It is therefore not a surprise that in countries where the Executive Branch is dominant and the response of the government is seen as the sole responsibility of a single party or individual, there is added pressure to report success at all costs. However, outcomes do vary. As a thought experiment, we may consider in the near future looking at how Tajikistan’s outcome has compared with that of Belarus, where government attempts to hide a poor response to COVID-19 have failed and contributed to the country’s first widespread protests against election rigging.


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