Turkmenistan may not have banned ‘coronavirus’, but is denying its reality

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Turkmenistan shares a border with Iran, one of the hotspots of coronavirus pandemic in the region, but its government still maintains that the country has not reported any positive cases of COVID-19 so far.

Going one step further, the secretive Central Asian country is also avoiding the use of the word ‘coronavirus’ as much as possible in order to deter the spread of information about the pandemic, according to a report.

Turkmenistan Chronicles, one of the few sources of independent news in the country, reported that the state media were saying nothing about the effects of coronavirus in the country and the word had even been removed from health information brochures distributed in schools, hospitals, and workplaces.

The president of the country, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who is known in Turkmenistan as the “Father Protector” of the nation, has never uttered the word himself, according to Eurasianet.

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By limiting the use of the word ‘coronavirus’ on the streets and never mentioning it in official documents, Turkmenistan’s government is putting its citizens in danger, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

According to journalists based in the capital, Ashgabat, who report for Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, people wearing face masks or talking about the coronavirus on the street, at bus stops or in lines outside shops are liable to be arrested by plainclothes police.

Turkmenistan may not have banned “coronavirus”

However, contrary to what was reported by RSF on March 31 which was picked up by the various mainstream Western media outlets such as Newsweek and ABC News, Turkmenistan has not officially banned the word “coronavirus.”

State media and government bodies in the country have acknowledged the existence of the problem. Turkmenistan was one of the fastest moving countries in combatting the pandemic by closing its borders in early February, Eurasianet reports.

On March 25, for example, TDH state news agency reported that the government was organizing charter flights to evacuate thousands of Turkmens studying in China, Turkey, Russia, and Belarus from the path of the coronavirus pandemic.

RSF updated its report on April 2 with an apology saying, "Contrary to what we initially reported, the term “coronavirus” was not as such censored in the Turkmen media. We apologize to our readers for this mistake, which was corrected as quickly as possible."

So, no matter whether Turkmenistan has officially banned the use of coronavirus or not, the country has adopted a consistent head-in-the-sand stance over the pandemic. “Denialism is still the order of the day,” Eurasianet said.

As Catherine Putz, managing editor of The Diplomat, observes instead of highlighting a government “ban” we should be highlighting the reality that Turkmenistan’s leadership is approaching the pandemic issue in a dangerously oblique fashion, without the kind of seriousness its neighbors and countries around the world have adopted.

“Those who will suffer most from Ashgabat’s denialism are Turkmen citizens. Turkmenistan’s neighbors and international players have a moral obligation, if nothing else, to make an effort at bringing Ashgabat around on confronting the reality of the pandemic,” she adds.

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