As the Covid-19 map gets covered by growing red circles, several countries still haven’t registered a single case of infection, including one of the most repressive states in the world – Turkmenistan. Many experts are concerned its government may be hiding the truth, which could disrupt attempts to end the pandemic.
While the world battles coronavirus and more and more countries lock down their populations, Turkmenistan is holding a mass cycling rally to mark World Health Day on Tuesday.
The Central Asian country claims it still has zero coronavirus cases. But can we trust the figures provided by a government renowned for censorship?
“Official health statistics from Turkmenistan are notoriously unreliable,” said Professor Martin McKee from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has studied the Turkmen healthcare system.
“For the past decade they have claimed to have no people living with HIV/Aids, a figure that is not plausible. We also know that, in the 2000s, they suppressed evidence of a series of outbreaks, including plague.”
Many in Turkmenistan are even afraid of suggesting Covid-19 may already be in the country.
“My acquaintance who works in a state agency told me that I shouldn’t say that the virus is here or that I heard about it, otherwise I may get into trouble,” said a resident of the capital Ashgabat, who asked to remain anonymous.
The Turkmen authorities are, however, working on tackling a possible outbreak.
Together with UN agencies in the country, they are discussing a plan of action.
The UN Resident Co-ordinator, Elena Panova, told the BBC that this plan included country level co-ordination, risk communication, case investigation, laboratory diagnostics and other measures.
When I asked her whether the UN trusted the official figures showing Turkmenistan had no confirmed Covid-19 cases, Ms Panova avoided giving a straight answer. “We are relying on official information because this is what all countries are doing,” she said. “There is no question of trust because that’s the way it works.” said early measures on restricting travel might have contributed to lack of confirmed cases.