COVID–19 in Asia: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly
A special report by Diplomat Risk Intelligence.
|Apr 15, 2020|
COVID-19 is a truly global problem, touching every corner of the world. From the direct health impact to economic, social, and political consequences, the pandemic has the potential to reshape countries across the globe — even those yet to report any confirmed cases. But while the problems are similar, the impacts on and responses from each country are unique.
This report, prepared by Diplomat Risk Intelligence, The Diplomat’s consulting service, briefly outlines “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of the COVID-19 fallout in the Asia-Pacific region. To access the full text, please visit The Diplomat.
Below, our DRI experts outline what you most need to know about the response from each government in East, Southeast, South, and Central Asia to the novel coronavirus. For more coverage on COVID-19 in Asia, and other political and economic trends worth following, subscribe to DRI’s newsletter here. To learn more about Diplomat Risk Intelligence’s services, please visit our website.
The Good: After initial missteps (see below), the Chinese government moved swiftly to prevent the spread of the disease, instituting an unprecedented quarantine in Wuhan, where the disease was discovered. Through a combination of high-tech scanning and tracking of its population, coupled with strict controls on people's ability to leave their homes, much less travel, China made progress. Amazingly, the epidemic is now under control. Data can be faked; the collapse of a health care system due to an overwhelming number of patients is much harder to cover up.
The Bad: As is now well-known, local and central authorities were not only slow to react to early reports of a mysterious new pneumonia-like illness in Wuhan, but even took steps to cover up the news. People issuing warnings on social media -- most famously Dr. Li Wenliang, who later died from what we now know as COVID-19 -- were rounded up and reprimanded by police. This let the pandemic spin out of control in the crucial early stages and arguably misled the rest of the world (including the WHO) into downplaying the severity of the problem.
The Ugly: There are intense questions over what the “real” numbers are, for both case counts and death toll. For example, Chinese figures put the death count in Wuhan, where the disease originated, at 2,500; that seems almost unfathomable given that well over a month elapsed between the first detected case (sometime in early December) and Wuhan's quarantine on January 23, the first serious action to stem the tide. That's given rise to a variety of rough estimates based on external data -- such as back-of-the-envelope calculations based on funeral home output of cremated remains, which would put deaths in Wuhan at closer to 40,000.
The Good: Hong Kong declared the new coronavirus an “emergency” in late January, and its efforts since have managed to ward off a spike in cases. The public clearly still remembers the lessons from SARS and reverted to mask-wearing and social distancing protocols more easily than many other populations. Schools were closed and public gatherings banned, but businesses, including restaurants, have been allowed to stay open, albeit with strict protocols in place on distancing between people.
The Bad: In the eyes of many Hong Kongers, however, that success came in spite of, not because of, the local government. As the rest of the world began to turn away travelers from China, the Hong Kong administration dragged its feet on instituting border controls with mainland China, to the consternation of medical professionals. Even in mid-March, when Hong Kong instituted mandatory two-week quarantines on all foreign travelers, the rules did not apply to mainland China. Residents are also up in arms about shortages of face masks and other protective medical gear.
The Ugly: The COVID-19 outbreak drives a further wedge between a local government seen as beholden to Beijing and the protest movement that began in summer of 2019 over a now-scrapped extradition bill. Among millions of Hong Kongers, there is a strong undercurrent of belief that the Hong Kong government cares more about pleasing the CCP than defending its own people; that's why the question of border controls with China became so sensitive. Physical protests are on hold for now due to social distancing requirements but are likely to erupt in earnest once the crisis passes.
The Good: Japan managed to avoid the worst of the first wave of infections, to such an extent that up until mid-March officials were still talking about holding the Tokyo Olympics as scheduled. As of April 1, Japan had only reported 2,500 cases and 60 deaths, many of those stemming from a single cruise ship. And that low number came despite businesses and borders remaining open at the time.
The Bad: Even as cases continued to climb in Tokyo, the central and local governments both declined to do much more than urge voluntary self-distancing practices – even after seeing the cautionary tales of lockdowns imposed too late in Italy and the United States. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finally declared a state of emergency on April 7, but even that was mostly voluntary and fell short of a true lockdown, to the dismay of medical experts. Meanwhile, testing was limited, leading critics to say Japan likely had far more cases than its official count. Now infections seem to be surging and Japan may have to play the same painful game of catch-up seen in Europe and the United States.
The Ugly: The timing for a COVID-19-induced economic shock couldn’t be worse for Japan. A long-delayed consumption tax hike was finally put into action in October 2019, and – as expected – took a big bite out of Japan’s economy. For the fourth quarter of 2019, Japan’s GDP fell by 6.3 percent. The Abe government was banking on a tourism surge from the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics to make up for the loss. Instead, Japan has a bigger hole to climb out of as the world slips into a pandemic-induced recession.
The Good: Mongolia is – as of this writing, at least – another success story for COVID-19. The government reacted swiftly to news of the new virus, shutting its extensive border with China and closing schools and public gatherings back in early February. The government even cancelled the national holiday Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s lunar new year. So far, the strategy seems to have worked; Mongolia had reported just 30 cases of COVID-19 as of April 14.
The Bad: Mongolia’s health care system, like much of its social services, is starkly divided between urban (read: Ulaanbaatar) and rural populations. According to the WHO, all of Mongolia’s specialized health care doctors are in Ulaanbaatar, where hospital facilities are more advanced. A largescale COVID-19 outbreak would easily overrun rural health care facilities, where Mongolia’s elderly (and thus higher-risk population) are more likely to live.
The Ugly: Mongolia is heavily reliant on both formal and informal trade with China, meaning the border shutdown could not only cause economic turmoil but acute shortages of necessary goods. In addition, the border closure saw Mongolian exports (largely ore and coal bound for China) plummet by over 34 percent in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
The Good: Pyongyang reacted very quickly, closing its border with China in January, before the new coronavirus had even been named. Those controls were later expanded to deny the entry of all foreigners. The swift response has been coupled by official rhetoric terming COVID-19 a threat to “national survival.” Clearly, North Korea is taking the disease seriously.
The Bad: There’s a reason Pyongyang is so concerned about the spread of the disease: its health care system is dilapidated and underfunded, lacking crucial medical supplies and medicine even under normal circumstances. It wouldn’t take much to overwhelm the North’s hospitals.
The Ugly: No one outside of North Korean leaders – and perhaps not even them – has any idea what the COVID-19 situation looks like in the country. The government claims there have not been any cases, but there have been a number of media reports, citing North Korean sources, of deaths from unnamed respiratory illnesses. As long as Pyongyang insists there's no problem, international donors will look to send aid to one of the many other countries asking for help.
The Good: South Korea is perhaps the poster child for managing a COVID-19 outbreak. A combination of extensive testing, location tracking, and contact tracing helped the country get control of the virus even after a massive surge in cases. Since then, countries around the world have been asking for advice – and testing kits – from South Korea, hoping to replicate its success.
The Bad: Though South Korea's response in the past month has been exemplary, the initial explosion of cases shows the extreme danger of noncompliance with social distancing protocols. The outbreak in Daegu was linked to a fringe religious group, the Sincheonji Church of Jesus, that urged supporters not to wear masks and to continue joining mass religious services, with attendees in the thousands. After one churchgoer brought COVID-19 into the mix, the outbreak quickly spiraled. South Korea went from less than 30 cases on February 13 – when Moon declared the outbreak nearly over -- to nearly 8,000 a month later.
The Ugly: South Korea is far from alone in seeing its COVID-19 response take on a political character, but the effects were amplified by the country’s April 15 National Assembly elections. Dueling petitions – one calling for Moon’s impeachment over his handling of the pandemic, and one asserting support of his administration – each gained over a million signatures on the Blue House’s official interface. In addition to partisan arguments over the efficacy of the Moon administration’s response, some conservative politicians downplayed the seriousness of the virus and undermined government efforts to respond.
The Good: Taiwan has been universally lauded as a model for its COVID-19 response, and for good reason: despite its close proximity to and frequent cross-border connections with China, where the outbreak began, Taiwan has limited its cases to just 393 as of April 14, with only six deaths. That’s because the government reacted quickly and decisively in January, by instituting early travel restrictions, rolling out testing, and asserting control of medical supply lines. Taiwan also recognized the potential for human-to-human transmission before China or the WHO did. Through these measures, Taiwan has been able to avoid the sort of sweeping lockdowns implemented around the world.
The Bad: Taiwan’s response has unfortunately left noncitizens out in the cold. First, the government controversially decided not to allow the children of Taiwanese-Chinese couples to evacuate to Taiwan in the early stages of the outbreak. Advocates have also raised the alarm over vulnerable migrant workers, many of whom are undocumented and may fall through the cracks of Taiwan’s COVID-19 prevention and treatment efforts.
The Ugly: The COVID-19 crisis has called global attention to the fact that Taiwan is still barred from the WHO, thanks to China’s interventions. In Taiwan, public and official anger over that culminated a public spat with WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus after he accused Taiwan’s foreign ministry of backing a racist hate campaign against him. That sparked vehement denials from Taipei and an outpouring of disbelief on social media.
Diplomat Risk Intelligence.
Diplomat Risk Intelligence connects you with experts whose specialization bests matches your needs and arrange one-on-one phone or video conference calls with an expert whenever you require. To learn more, click here.
The Good: After initially downplaying the pandemic, Cambodia has taken some belated steps including suspending foreign visas, declaring a state of emergency, and canceling new year celebrations. With the country officially registering a few dozen cases as of now, it has also begun allocating more economic resources to the health sector amid concerns about the country’s health system and its ability to handle rising cases.
The Bad: Hun Sen’s initial public relations stunts, including offering to fly to Wuhan in China when it was the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic and allowing the Westerdam ship to dock in Cambodia, were reflective of the country’s early downplaying of the virus contrary to the advice of public health experts.
The Ugly: Cambodia has been among the countries where concerns have been raised about governments using COVID-19 as an excuse to undertake further repressive measures. The passage of a state of emergency law has deepened anxieties on this score, with provisions related that would enable surveillance, media controls, and restrictions on freedom of assembly.
The Good: The Indonesian government has enacted some limited restrictions, including banning foreign travel and closing some land borders. In addition to three stimulus packages, Jakarta is coordinating aid from various countries and development banks to shore up the economy. Indonesia has also been an important voice in calling for a greater regional and international response to COVID-19, including within ASEAN.
The Bad: Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has publicly admitted that his administration initially downplayed the virus, thereby resulting in several lost weeks and partly explaining why Indonesia continues to top Southeast Asia in terms of total virus deaths. The Indonesian government has been unwilling to take tougher measures, including preventing millions of Indonesians from returning to their homes at the end of Ramadan. Testing capacity is rising but remains severely limited, while the deaths of medical workers have exposed the underequipped nature of the health system and shortages of personal protective equipment.
The Ugly: Rights groups have expressed concerns about Indonesian authorities using criminal defamation laws to crack down on public criticism of the government’s response to COVID-19, including charges as well as the blocking of social media accounts.
The Good: After an initially slow reaction, Malaysia has taken some aggressive steps, including border closures and as well as a partial lockdown that has been enforced by the military. It has also been quick to manage economic impacts, with three economic stimulus packages already announced since the end of February.
The Bad: Malaysia’s initially slow response, which came amid a sudden change in government, is partly responsible for why it has been leading the region in terms of reported cases. There has been a lack of clarity on some policies, with a case in point being the treatment of Malaysian workers in Singapore and their ability to return home to the country.
The Ugly: Tone-deaf, sexist social messaging by the Women’s Development Department, which the government has since apologized for, raised anxieties about the lack of concern about the social consequences of COVID-19, including increasing domestic violence. Some government policies such as movement restrictions have also put the spotlight on the disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups such as indigenous people and refugees.
The Good: The government has enacted some limited measures, including suspending visas on arrival and international flights and canceling national celebrations. It has also been working with other governments to increase capacity in areas such as testing in light of the severe constraints of Myanmar’s health system.
The Bad: Myanmar’s effective head of state Aung San Suu Kyi publicly downplayed the pandemic for weeks, including continuing campaign events ahead of expected elections later this year. The virus has also derailed some of the country’s economic moves, including opening its stock market to foreign investors.
The Ugly: COVID-19 has only intensified civil-military divisions in the country, as evidenced by public remarks issued on the state of the peace process and the reported existence of parallel civilian and military task forces on the pandemic. The virus has also exposed the severe lack of protections for certain population groups, including the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in Myanmar amid ongoing ethnic conflict.
The Good: After some delay, the Philippines has enacted some restrictions, including canceling fights, banning the entry of foreigners, and nixing key military exercises. The country also announced an economic stimulus package and social protection program.
The Bad: The Philippines’ initial refusal to enact restrictions on travel and tourism from China has in part contributed to its continued status as one of the leading countries of reported COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia. Testing is increasing but still has yet to be ramped up to adequate levels, and the government has been forced into measures such as stopping healthcare workers from going abroad to manage pressures on the health system at home. While not surprising, Duterte’s rhetoric during COVID-19 – with statements such as shooting lockdown violators on sight – has nonetheless complicated how the government’s response is being viewed.
The Ugly: Duterte’s belated imposition of a lockdown and success in getting emergency powers handed to him has further intensified existing fears about his strongman rule. Protests by some population segments, including slum dwellers, have exposed the lack of social protections and the more sluggish aspects of the government’s response thus far.
The Good: Singapore’s early detection and quick response – with restrictions and support packages announced starting in February – not only enabled it to initially contain the virus, but also served as an early warning of the virus’ spread in Southeast Asia at a time when underreporting had been suspected. Singapore’s response has served as an example globally and the country has also been contributing to assistance in the region and sharing its experiences with the world.
The Bad: Despite its best efforts, Singapore has been unable to contain the emergence of new clusters, leading to the imposition of a lockdown in early April to prevent another wave of COVID-19 cases. Singapore has also had to deal with the coronavirus amid continued speculation about whether it will hold an election amid a pandemic, with some opposition figures criticizing this as detracting from the focus on COVID-19.
The Ugly: The emergence of case clusters in migrant worker dormitories has spotlighted the longstanding issue of the management of foreign laborers and the difficulty of adhering to social distancing in overcrowded conditions.
The Good: After some delay, Thailand closed its borders, banned foreign visitors, and imposed a partial curfew. The government has also passed three stimulus packages covering a range of areas, including loans, worker aid, and tax benefits.
The Bad: The Thai government was initially slow to enact travel restrictions and a quarantine in part due to concerns about Thailand’s economic relationship to China. Thai officials have publicly admitted that the impact of measures such as social distancing has been limited due to a lack of compliance among the population below the levels that are required to keep new cases down.
The Ugly: There are worries that the Thai government, led by Prayut Chan-o-cha who had taken power in a coup back in May 2014, may use expanded powers to censor the press and suppress opponents. Controversy regarding the monarchy has continued during COVID-19, with the king reportedly in self-isolation in a lavish hotel in Germany.
The Good: Vietnam’s early and quick response – including travel restrictions in late January and a quarantine in mid-February – allowed it to contain the virus initially despite its high vulnerability as a country that borders China. Vietnam has also been providing assistance to lesser developed mainland Southeast Asian states and pushing for more of a regional response as this year’s holder of the annually rotating ASEAN chairmanship.
The Bad: Despite recent measures announced, Vietnam, which has been one of Asia’s fastest growing economies in recent years, has found it difficult to manage the economic fallout of the virus with just months before a planned Party Congress in early 2021. There are also fears that China may capitalize on COVID-19 and a distracted world to further advance its continued assertiveness in the South China Sea to Hanoi’s detriment.
The Ugly: The government’s COVID-19 response has intensified existing fears about the implications for democracy and human rights, with reported arrests being made in the name of fake news and increased monitoring on activists.
by Ankit Panda
The Good: As part of post-2001 reconstruction, Afghanistan’s national healthcare system has seen improvement, even as serious limitations remain.
The Bad: With limited healthcare capacity and a population that is more than 70 percent based in rural areas, Afghanistan will face tremendous stress should the virus continue to spread widely in far-flung reaches of the country. The country’s proximity to Iran, one of the world’s early COVID-19 hotspots, will remain a challenge.
The Ugly: The COVID-19 pandemic can be expected to have major political effects on the precarious ongoing peace process in the country. The economic effects of COVID-19 elsewhere could fiscally constrain some of Afghan’s major foreign aid donors, resulting in shortfalls in sorely needed funding for Kabul in the coming years.
The Good: The Bangladeshi government has treated the pandemic seriously and taken economic and public health steps to mitigate damage. To support the national economy, the government has announced an $8 billion stimulus package, representing 2.5 percent of GDP.
The Bad:One-in-four workers in Bangladesh’s massive garment manufacturing sector has lost income -- through being either laid off or furloughed -- due to the pandemic-induced reduction in global demand. Revenue losses for this sector were estimated at around $3 billion. Stimulus spending to date has come under criticism for targeting industry over the country’s poor and vulnerable.
The Ugly: Like other South Asian countries, those Bangladeshis living in extreme poverty will suffer as a result of the slowdown in economic activity amid the pandemic and lockdown. A particularly dangerous public health crisis could emerge among million-plus Rohingyas living in refugee camps in the country’s southeast.
The Good: The Indian central government treated the pandemic with seriousness early on, taking measures including a total ban on overseas arrivals to the country by air and ordering a nationwide lockdown. The March 24 lockdown order by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the largest of its kind in the world, affecting the country’s 1.3 billion people. Regional results have varied in India, with certain states like Kerala exhibiting a particularly robust response to the pandemic.
The Bad: New Delhi’s rapid implementation of a national lockdown was done without clear communication, resulting in panic and frenzy as citizens initially wondered how to procure essential goods. Government communication had originally told Indians not to panic shop, resulting in a delayed panic after the lockdown order was announced. To make matters worse, law enforcement often acted overzealously in supporting lockdowns. India’s COVID-19 testing capacity remains limited.
The Ugly: Tens of millions of Indians living below the poverty line and transient migrant rural-to-urban migrant workers were left with their livelihoods upended by the lockdown. With fiscal resources already under pressure, attempts by the central government to offer a social safety net are insufficient, with spending at under 1 percent of Indian GDP.
The Good: Nepal’s reliance on India-based supply chains remains a vulnerability, but these have remained open throughout the ongoing lockdown in both countries. On April 10, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nepali Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli spoke to coordinate the continued robustness of supply chains. While India-Nepal relations have faced challenges in recent years, the pandemic has focused attention on sustaining linkages; the vast majority of Nepal’s overseas trade transits Indian territory.
The Bad: The Nepali government, prior to the pandemic, had made tourism central to its growth plans. Needless to say, COVID-19 will significantly impact tourism to Nepal amid a broader slowdown in the industry globally.
The Ugly: Like its neighbor India, Nepal’s poor and migrant workers have suffered as a result of the lockdown’s effects on regular economic activity. The country’s fiscal situation has meant a lack of social support for these groups.
The Good: Despite fiscal constraints and austerity measures taken last year, the Pakistani government has rolled out a substantial social assistance program for many of the country’s poorer residents involving direct cash transfers. Eligible households will receive financial assistance to prevent hunger and malnutrition amid the crisis.
The Bad: The economic implications of COVID-19 will be particularly severe in Pakistan, which had entered a period of economic austerity prior to the pandemic after a balance of payments crisis resulting in loans from the International Monetary Fund. The country’s Ministry of Planning has estimated that unemployment in the country could spike, leaving as many as 18.5 million people jobless.
The Ugly: The apportionment of healthcare resources in Pakistan through the pandemic is likely to be sharply divergent between the population-dense provinces of Punjab and Sindh and the more remote parts of the country, including Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. As the situation worsens, this could lead to political instability.
The Good: On April 2, the World Bank announced one of its largest emergency funding packages in South Asia for Sri Lanka, providing $128.6 million in financing to support emergency health systems and pandemic response.
The Bad: In March, Sri Lanka’s election commissioner announced that the country’s 2020 parliamentary election would be postponed indefinitely as a result of the pandemic. The election was scheduled originally for late April. Economically, Sri Lanka faces major supply chain concerns and has banned the export of essential goods, including food staples.
The Ugly: Sri Lanka’s new authoritarian-leaning leadership is opportunistically leveraging the pandemic to crack down on free expression in the country, including by ordering law enforcement to arrest citizens criticizing official guidance.
The Good: On March 2, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev cancelled the upcoming International Women’s Day festivities. The holiday is a big deal in the former Soviet Union and while Kazakhstan at that point had not confirmed any coronavirus cases, its government made a proactive decision in the interest of public health. After confirming its first cases, Kazakhstan cancelled Nowruz celebrations in late March and even the scheduled May 9 Victory Day parade. The good news is Nur-Sultan has taken COVID-19 seriously and taken reasonable measures, including closing nonessential business, curtailing travel, and enforcing quarantines. Kazakhstan also has a government dashboard with the latest data and a hotline number.
The Bad: As of early April, the novel coronavirus has spread to every region in Kazakhstan with the highest number of cases present in Nur-Sultan and Almaty, the country’s two largest cities, followed by Karaganda region and Akmola region (just south of and surrounding the capital, respectively). The pandemic also brought with it an oil crisis as prices dropped with the implosion of global demand and Russia and Saudi Arabia held onto a nasty price war a little too long. Kazakhstan joined major oil producers to keep barrels off the market, cutting production, as of May 1. But it’s probably too little, too late to avoid a bad hangover in oil-dependent economies -- like Kazakhstan -- from depressed prices.
The Ugly: As the virus spreads in more rural areas, it will be more difficult for Kazakhstan to detect cases and care for patients. The differences in quality of healthcare infrastructure between Kazakhstan’s urban and rural communities, and differences in access between the rich and the poor, could expose some ugly truths about social inequality in Kazakhstan.
The Good: Kyrgyzstan and China annually close their shared border during the Chinese New Year holiday. The widening of the COVID-19 epidemic occurred around the holiday in late January, meaning the border closure just had to be extended. Bishkek also began screening arrivals for fevers in late January and quarantined citizens repatriated from China. Reasonable mitigation and prevention measures expanded to include quarantining of arrivals, lockdowns, curfews, and nonessential business closures once COVID-19 cases were confirmed in the country in mid-March. Kyrgyz authorities appear to be taking the pandemic seriously and that’s good news. Bishkek set up a website with information on the virus and news updates.
The Bad: Kyrgyzstan is not a wealthy country and the inability to work is going to have an impact on households dependent on daily wages. The closure of borders also means that Kyrgyz who typically travel to Russia for seasonal work in the spring and summer are stuck in Kyrgyzstan, jobless. Once the pandemic passes, Kyrgyzstan, along with much of the world, will be left in economic ruin in part because of an accompanying drop in tourism that will linger.
The Ugly: Kyrgyzstan has sought financial assistance from international organizations. But as one civil society activist pointed out to RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, parts of the Kyrgyz government have long pushed a propaganda campaign against international NGOs, casting funding from abroad, particularly the West, as suspicious at best. There’s an ugly hypocrisy in calling for assistance from sources only recently cast as meddling and nefarious.
The Good: In early April, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon began taking and making calls to his regional counterparts to discuss the coronavirus pandemic. The state has also accepted and solicited aid in various forms, from the United States and WHO as well as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. According to local media, while there are no government orders to close nonessential businesses, some have transitioned to remote work anyway.
The Bad: Schools in Tajikistan reopened after the spring holiday on April 1 and mosques remain open as of April 10. Dushanbe’s claims to have run hundreds of COVID-19 tests without identifying any cases is suspect at best. Tajikistan closed its borders to foreigners on April 10, weeks after neighboring countries began registering coronavirus cases. Local media reported this week that an employee of a hospital at which Tajiks who had returned from abroad were quarantine died -- officially of tuberculosis. Dushanbe has warned against spreading unfounded rumors, but has a bad record when it comes to transparency -- making its denials difficult to take at face value.
The Ugly: Over the last few weeks, as its neighbors announced their first cases and the initiation of severe mitigation measures, Tajikistan’s president stood on stages with dozens of people, while more sat crammed close together in the audience. Crowds gathered to celebrate Nowruz in late March, even as similar celebrations were cancelled in neighboring states. It’s especially ugly that even as Tajikistan solicits assistance to fight the virus, Rahmon isn’t modeling reasonable precautionary behaviors -- let alone mandating them.
The Good: The only good news about Turkmenistan under the current circumstances is how closed and isolated the country is, even in the best of times. With so few travelers normally, Turkmenistan might be spared by sheer virtue of its isolation from the outside world.
The Bad: Turkmenistan was in the midst of an economic crisis before the pandemic; its only lucrative business is gas and Ashgabat has essentially one customer: Beijing. Even if China is through the COVID-19 woods (and even if Turkmenistan miraculously escapes infection entirely), analysts expect lower gas demands in China as a byproduct of slowing global demand for goods manufactured in the country. That will invariably be bad news for Turkmenistan.
The Ugly: Turkmenistan’s leadership has built itself up on the premise that everything is golden and good in the land of the Turkmen thanks to Arkadag, the protector: President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. With a cult of personality branded with his virility and sportsmanship, admitting there’s an invisible foe that can’t be cured with a brisk bike ride chips away at the veneer. The ugly truth is that a lie that protects Berdimuhamedov’s position is always preferable to the government over the truth that it isn’t equipped to handle this crisis. Turkmenistan may not have banned the word “coronavirus,” but it sure hasn’t used it enough.
The Good: President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s push to position Uzbekistan as the true and functioning center of Central Asia has yielded good results at a time of crisis. Mirziyoyev, whose state borders every other Central Asian state, has worked the phones to coordinate with the neighbors. Uzbekistan took swift action after its first case was identified in mid-March and now the country is under a state of emergency declaration, its borders and schools are closed, and heavy restrictions have been placed on movement within cities. At the same time, Uzbekistan has allowed freight traffic to continue across the region -- meaning aid and supplies can transit its territory. Every step Mirziyoyev takes is put in sharp contrast to how analysts imagine his predecessor, Islam Karimov, would have acted. Tashkent is communicating updates to the public via the Internet and Telegram.
The Bad: In support of strict restrictions, Uzbekistan has resurfaced facets of its police state days. The resurrection of sidelined security forces to enforce curfews and travel restrictions could be bad news if these tools aren’t put back in their box when the crisis passes. The pandemic, while illustrating the government’s reform when it comes to neighborhood relations, communication, cooperation, and transparency, also exposes how easy it is to snap back to strict policing of behavior. The moment is extraordinary; let’s hope it doesn’t derail Tashkent’s progress.
The Ugly: Uzbekistan’s heavy lockdown rules have yielded violators who have been punished with 15-day jail terms and heavy fines for being out without an essential reason or not wearing a face mask. While its arguably necessary to have punishment for violation of rules in such a time of crisis, the circumstances (and the country’s history and record with corruption) open up a whole realm of possibilities for abuse.
This newsletter is written by Ankit Panda, senior editor for The Diplomat, and director of research at Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at email@example.com and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.