COVID-19 in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus – an overview
A report by Nathan Dampier, BEARR Trust volunteer
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads into BEARR’s region of focus, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, governments have taken a range of measures to try to reduce the catastrophic impact across society of COVID-19. In this article I attempt to bring you an overview of these governments’ responses to the pandemic – from sealed borders, quarantine, and public transport closures to restrictions on the media and movement, as well as the state of healthcare, and how civil society is coming together to support the action, and in some cases inaction, of their governments.
Statistics as of noon, 08/04/2020 worldometers.info
President Lukashenko has made headlines for his statements on the virus. He has warned that panic, exacerbated by the media, will cause more harm than the coronavirus itself. Notably Belarus is one of the only countries in the world continuing with mass public sports events. Speaking at an indoor ice hockey match, the president pointed to the fact that he could not see evidence of coronavirus at the stadium, while suggesting that sport in the cold temperatures of the indoor rink is “the best antiviral cure!” Other methods of warding off the virus suggested by the president include: working hard on tractors in the countryside, visiting saunas, and drinking 50ml of vodka each day.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists and the human rights group Viasna have called on the government to provide accurate and regular updates on the coronavirus situation to prevent misreporting and the spread of disinformation in the media. The lack of official information has seen fraudsters capitalise on unsuspecting pensioners by offering them fake coronavirus “vaccines” for 250 roubles.
Despite Lukashenko’s calmness, the Moscow Times are reporting that civil society in Belarus is taking matters into its own hands, with schools and businesses closing voluntarily, rather than waiting for the government to impose any lockdown measures, while the Belarusian opposition are urging the public to participate in a “people’s quarantine.” One business that closed its doors to the public, the ‘Grillman’ restaurant in Minsk, has set up a fundraising page (https://molamola.by/en/campaigns/2415?tab=about) to cover its costs while its staff prepare and distribute free meals to medical staff. They are aiming to prepare a minimum of 22,800 servings over the next two months. While the non-profit media platform ‘Imena’ has set up a fund (https://imenamag.by/projects/corona-protection#) to purchase PPE for 15,000 social workers and members of the Red Cross who are visiting the elderly in major cities.
Moldova declared a state of emergency on 17 March, suspending international travel and closing non-essential businesses. Media NGOs have criticised authorities for a lack of transparency, by not answering questions related to the virus, they are requesting the government to step up their collaboration with journalists. On 25 March, the Moldovan Coordinating Committee for Broadcasting demanded that journalists only use the official information from the Ministry of Health and Commission on Emergency Situations when reporting on the coronavirus, and refrain from expressing personal opinions on the matter. However, two days later, the restrictions were retracted after pressure from media NGOs and the public. Moldova’s weak healthcare system may experience tremendous pressure when its migrant workers return from popular countries of destination such as Italy, carrying the virus. These returnees are being required to take out medical insurance on arrival home.
Early measures were taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into Russia by closing the border with China and introducing mandatory quarantine for travellers from virus hotspots in late January. This extended to a closure of all borders in March with a ban on entry to foreign nationals lasting at least until 1 May. On 25 March President Putin urged non-essential workers to remain at home on a “non-working week,” this has since been re-designated as a “work-from-home” period and extended to the end of April. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin took the lead implementing a lockdown in the capital, with residents allowed out to buy food or medicine, receive treatment, walk dogs or take out the rubbish. Rather than imposing actions on all Russian citizens, the Kremlin has largely delegated decision-making power on anti-virus measures to regional authorities due to the variance in prevalence of the virus in different regions of Russia. Konstantin Eggert, formerly of the BBC Russian Service, has described this as a “crisis of centralisation” with regional authorities and the Kremlin unsure who should take the lead in implementing anti-virus measures. Chechnya took the decision to seal its borders from the rest of the country on 5 April, and passengers arriving at Grozny airport from Moscow will have to provide proof of negative coronavirus tests from 11 April. More recently, on 6 April train services from the Kaliningrad exclave to Moscow and St. Petersburg were halted.
Initially these measures seemed to be effective, with Russia reporting much lower rates of coronavirus cases than other countries. However, Rosstat, the Russian Federal State Statistics Service, had reported an increase of 37% in ‘community spread pneumonia’ in January 2020 compared to January 2019. There are concerns as to the accuracy and availability of tests. The opposition politician Vladimir Milov pointed out the case of a colleague who had initially tested negative, yet when after symptoms worsened was tested a second time, and the test came back positive.Currently around 35,000 tests are being performed daily, but there are reports of many people experiencing pneumonia-like symptoms not being tested. Another concern about testing, raised by Foreign Policy special correspondent Reid Standish, is that coronavirus testing is a monopoly run by a lab in Novosibirsk, overseen by state health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor: “this means the lab faces a thickening bottleneck and growing backlog in terms of delivering results. Moreover, tests in Russia are conducted using a locally developed version, which some medical experts have said may not be accurate enough to identify all cases of the virus.” As of 7 April Rospotrebnadzor had conducted more than 795,000 tests, and have developed an “express” test which takes 40 minutes to produce a result with 94% accuracy.
On the Russian healthcare sector’s ability to handle the approaching surge in cases, a LEVADA Center survey reported that 13% of responders fully believed Russia’s health system was ready for the pandemic, while 20% did not believe it was at all ready. In an Atlantic Council discussion on the matter Dr. Judyth Twigg raised the point that while Russia has invested an enormous amount in healthcare infrastructure in the last decade, much of that investment has gone into specialised hospitals targeted at meeting the needs of the Russian Federation: hospitals specialising in maternity care and non-communicable diseases (such as heart disease). There is uncertainty as to how well equipped these hospitals are at dealing with a highly communicable disease like COVID-19. On top of this, Russia has much higher rates of conditions (HIV, TB) which weaken the immune system, meaning a larger portion of the population is in danger of becoming seriously ill from the virus. Another vulnerable group includes labour migrants, many of whom from Central Asia now trapped in Russia due to the border closures. The residency and employment status of many of these workers is uncertain, and a fear is that they are not covered by Russia’s national healthcare system. While Russia has a large stockpile of medical equipment and supplies to last a long period, there are reports from physicians that there is a lack of PPE outside the major cities and fears that much of the existing equipment will prove outdated. 
Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced a proposed package to help lift restrictions on the work of NGOs so that they can better join the fight against coronavirus. Rapsi News, the Russian Legal Information Agency, reports that the package involves lower taxes on labour, a six month moratorium on restrictions to allow NGOs to engage in activity outside their official roles, an annulment of penalties for annual reports returned late, and a suspension on the need to fulfil the commitments of their state procurement contracts and grant agreements.
The “Predanie/Предание” (Tradition) foundation has set up a fund to support medical staff at Moscow City Clinical Hospital no.52. All funds will go to the purchase of PPE, medical equipment, food and support for doctors and nurses fighting the coronavirus. Their webpage can be found here: https://fond.predanie.ru/blago/340915/.
The “Fenix/Феникс” (Phoenix) Programme, set up to support victims of natural disasters (fires, floods, hurricanes), has set up a fund to support staff at Moscow’s Kommunarka hospital, which you can find here: https://feniks.lavkafond.ru/campaign/vracham-tozhe-nuzhna-pomoshh/?fbclid=IwAR0Urh3abp0OoWMKIFJkUPu8HwJpn31AsJHK9FUx1MDemT1SV3EuSMXGTXs
The “Zhivoy/Живой” (Live) fund is set up to purchase PPE to deliver to Russia’s regional hospitals, recently sending a batch of respirators to Omsk. They currently have collected 1million of their 3million rouble target. https://livefund.ru/campaign/pomozhem-vracham-zashhitit-sebya-i-svoih-patsientov/?fbclid=IwAR3id2oYMNXLsboPQau9zcqQ9ghFhkj6aZ1tU0ND7M1uRn9tDsNI6rlJhjo
VEB, the national development bank, has launched a project with the family clinic network Doctor Nearby «ДокторРядом» to offer free remote consultations over the phone to Russians for at least a month. To access the service, users must register on the Doctor Nearby website (https://telemed.drclinics.ru/drclinics/) or via their app and enter the promo code VEBMED.
There have been ethical concerns about the Russian authorities’ measures to deal with the virus. Anastasia Vasilieva, a leader of the medical workers union Alliance of Doctors (Альянс Врачей), which has publicly criticised the lack of PPE for medical workers, was arrested by police in Okulovka and allegedly choked and hit in the abdomen. Vasilieva, her colleagues, and accompanying journalists were detained for breaching travel restrictions while attempting to deliver PPE to medical staff at the local hospital. On 31 March a law was passed that could sentence people to up to five years in prison for spreading “false information” about the coronavirus.
Another ethical concern relates to the new surveillance methods Russia is considering using to enforce mandatory stay-at-home orders. As reported by The Guardian, leaked documents indicate the authorities could employ mobile apps which track user locations, CCTV cameras with facial recognition software, and credit card records to track people’s movements and ensure they aren’t violating lockdown for non-essential reasons. On 2 April, Moscow mayor Sobyanin signed legislation allowing authorities to identify and fine people who violate the stay-at-home order. The Head of Moscow’s Department of Information Technologies, Eduard Lysenko, said that they plan to roll out an online form that requires Muscovites to register online each time they seek to leave the house, with the form providing a QR code that would act like a hall pass that police could check. Opponents fear that systems such as these will provide authorities with dangerous powers. Robert Coalson speaking on RFE/RL’s The Week Ahead podcast, said that human rights groups are right to be concerned by the new restrictions, as there is no oversight mechanism to say when the emergency situation is over or when the special laws should be lifted. The Russian NGO Roskomsvoboda has released an interactive map which charts violations of digital rights across the globe.
On 12 March a three-week nationwide period of quarantine was imposed, closing educational institutions and restricting large gatherings; this has since been extended to 24 April and now bans citizens: from being in public places without a face mask, travelling in groups of more than two (except for children), those under 16 years of age being out in public without adult supervision, visiting public recreation areas (except for walking pets), or conducting mass events with more than ten participants (except for government authorities). On 17 March a new law stopped operation of some public transport services and implemented strict capacity limits on others. The Healthcare Ministry postponed scheduled surgery for all but the most urgent. The hardest hit regions have been Kyiv and Chernyvtsy. The National Security Council of Ukraine, the Ministry of Health, and regional authorities have designated 240 medical institutions for treating COVID-19 patients, with additional institutions ready to be assigned should they need them.‘112 Ukraine’ reported that President Zelensky made the following statement regarding the potential future measures he was willing to take: “The experience of China shows that unpopular and tough decisions overcome the virus and save lives. The experience of other countries shows that mildness and liberalism are allies of the coronavirus. Therefore, we will act harshly, urgently, perhaps not popularly, but for the sake of one thing – the life and health of Ukrainians.”
On 7 April Ukraine became the latest country to introduce a phone app which tracks the geolocation data of people undergoing self-isolation. Crucially however, Digital Transformation Minister Myhailo Fedorov has assured the public that the app only takes data when it sends a push notification to the user, which it will do 10 times over a 14-day period.
Dr. Ulana Suprun, the former acting Minister of Health for Ukraine, has stated that the relatively low number of recorded deaths (13 as of 31 March) is likely to be misleading as only 2600 people had by then been tested for the virus. She expected there to be many more undiscovered cases and suggested the number of pneumonia cases was an indicator of the spread of the virus.
The main concerns at the moment relate to the availability of medical equipment and the lack of coordination in response from central and regional governments. Dr. Suprun suggested that 6,000 ventilators for a population of 37 million was a relatively low ratio. Yulia Kovaliv, Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, explained that the government is trying to cut back bureaucracy and deregulate the healthcare sector to make it easier for medical staff to access resources. This can be seen in a new law that allows the use of medicines which are unregistered in Ukraine but recommended by officials of other nations such as EU members, the US, and China. Kovaliv has also stressed the difficulty of sourcing equipment as the whole world is bidding for limited resources. On 30 March a plane from South Korea arrived carrying 100,000 PCR test kits. There are also a couple of small companies in Ukraine which produce Soviet-style ventilators, there is hope that they will be able to step up production from the average 10 ventilators they produce each month.
There has been criticism on the lack of coordination and clarity in the government’s response. Dr. Suprun argued that the lack of official information from the Ministry of Health in the first couple of months of the crisis enabled the spread of disinformation, which in turn makes it harder to get the official information across. For instance, the public weren’t clear about the meaning of “self-isolation,” with Ukrainians returning home from abroad, staying at home but inviting people to visit them in isolation and in doing so spreading the virus. Andrei Stavnitser, the co-owner of TiS and coordinator of the COVID-19 response for the Odessa region, called on the government to announce emergency actions as the public weren’t taking the crisis seriously enough and were still gathering outdoors in warm weather.
Part of the lack of cohesion can be attributed to the fact that the Ukrainian healthcare system has been in the midst of a comprehensive reform, with many contracts still up in the air. Officials have decided to continue with reform as it would be more disruptive to abandon it considering that much of the groundwork has been accomplished already.While Dr. Suprun pointed out that Ukraine has suffered from a lack of leadership, with the government not heeding the advice of experts, and three different Ministers of Health in a three-week period.
This has led to individual regions taking their own measures and issuing their own communications to residents, to varying effect. Dnipro announced they were testing patients two weeks ago, and had managed to source 400 ventilators, while Odessa had just 70. Stavnitser has been especially critical of the Governor of Odessa for hindering the efforts of civil society to respond to the crisis, saying that the governor has issued orders to the public to deliver people with suspected pneumonia to regional hospitals that had not been designated for COVID-19, which Stavnitser fears will overwhelm those less prepared medical centres. He has also criticised the fact that businesses are having to pay tax on money they are donating directly to hospitals.
Stavnitser explained the actions being taken by civil society in Odessa: there is a group of volunteers sourcing and translating information on the virus from around the world to disseminate via local TV and radio broadcasting, setting up a special fund to provide financial incentives to support 3,000 medical employees, while also offering support to the families of healthcare workers to help those on the frontline to do their jobs more effectively. Stavnitser said that the lack of supplies has seen mass resignations from medical staff in Odessa, in some hospitals up to 50%. Staff at Vodnikov hospital in Odessa posted a video online accusing the government of falsifying numbers of available equipment and staff, saying they did not have enough supplies to deal with the crisis, and that the only equipment they have received has come from volunteers and the business community. Stavnitser stated that they had successfully sourced PPE and 5 ventilators from China, but are facing trouble with fraud; they are receiving testing kits from China that only test for the flu (rather than COVID-19 specifically), as well as fake products and masks that don’t meet medical standards. To prevent haemorrhaging money the business community is having to spend a lot of time vetting which companies can be trusted to provide adequate equipment.
Hromadske International, an independent Ukrainian news outlet which receives funding from non-profit organisations, has spotlighted the work of several mutual aid networks as civil society responds to the crisis on their website. These groups include ride-to-work networks to help transport medical staff to work while public transport is shut down, a charity fund ‘Return Alive’ which is sending PCR tests and PPE to Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the Donbas, ‘Life Lover’ and ‘Starenki’ are supporting elderly people with groceries, medicines and by covering utility payments, while ‘Youths for Peace’, ‘Depaul Ukraine’, and ‘United Charity Organisation’ are providing support to the homeless.
Halyna Skipalska, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Foundation for Public Health, and a participant in last November’s BEARR Annual Conference on ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’, has provided us with her insights on the situation in Eastern Ukraine and also how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted the work of HealthRight:
- On the Eastern Conflict Area: entry/exit points to Non-Government Controlled Areas (NGCA) have been closed by the de-facto authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk since 21 and 23 March respectively. Civilian movements are prohibited but humanitarian convoys are exempt. People arriving from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic or the Russian Federation have to provide proof of residence to enter the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.
- On how COVID-19 is affecting the work of HealthRight: most of its staff, including the 18 mobile teams, the Human Rights Clinic, and some of their Day Centres, are working remotely via phone, Skype, and Viber. They have implemented intensive training to conduct their counselling, group sessions, and COVID-19 protective measures online. They are sending their Mobile Teams (MTs) to service users in emergency situations such as transferring service users to shelters. They have equipped their MTs with masks and disinfectant. Their shelters are continuing to operate and have observed increased demand through an increase in domestic violence cases, an unfortunate consequence of quarantine; in 2019 each team received 3-5 calls a day, now they are receiving 10-12 calls each day. There is concern that they may lose funding from the government as the state reallocates funds to focus on responding to COVID-19. In anticipation of this, the staff at their halfway house in Kyiv have started a small fundraising campaign to purchase masks and pay for taxis for staff (as public transport is only available to designated key workers). They are increasing their social media output to promote the services at the halfway house and day centre in Kyiv. Their Facebook pages can be found here:
- On the effect quarantine will have on survivors of domestic violence: they are observing increased numbers of cases of domestic violence and experiencing greater demand for their psychological support services due to fears about the coronavirus. As we are only at the beginning of the epidemic, Skipalska anticipates that the situation will only worsen the longer families are stuck at home with no work and no income. Another area of concern has been the state’s actions over children in orphanages, with around 45,000 children transferred to families without any form of support.
- On concerns regarding the longer-term impact of COVID-19: There will be a huge economic impact, delays and deceleration on the reform process, and ultimately the most vulnerable will suffer most: families with low income, orphans, victims of domestic violence, the elderly, and people living with disabilities.
- On any positive outcomes from this crisis: Halyna pointed to the work oligarchs and the business community are doing to support the health service, and the mobilisation of a volunteer movement.
Kazakhstan closed education institutions and suspended public events on 12 March, before any cases of coronavirus were recorded. A state of emergency was declared on 15 March, with Almaty and capital city Nur-Sultan being placed on lockdown from 19 March.  The Moscow Times reported that the lockdown has been extended to at least six major cities. The railway service announced it was halting all its passenger services on 2 April. Tengrin News reported that a Chinese surveillance system is being employed in Almaty and Nur-Sultan to ensure drivers do not deviate from permitted routes. Health Minister Yelzhan Birtanov stated that he expected the number of cases not to exceed 3,500. Over concerns regarding the quality of medical equipment available, officials from North Kazakhstan admitted that most of their existing ventilators were severely outdated and planned to invest $330,000 in five new ventilators.
On 3 April President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev approved measures to implement a military call-up that will put many of the newly unemployed to work fighting the virus. For three months conscripts will be put to work manning checkpoints, patrolling streets, carrying out disinfection and guarding government facilities. Elected representatives, those under criminal investigation, fathers of three or more children, teachers, full-time students, agricultural workers, aviation specialists and law enforcement officers will be exempt.
Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev has set up the Birgemiz Public Foundation (https://birgemiz2020.kz/) to help fight the virus. The total fund stands at almost 14 billion Kazakhstani Tenge (approx. US$31.4 Million) with around US$10m in donations from a foundation controlled by Nazarbayev’s daughter, and US$1m from a charity founded by Asel Tasmagambetova, the daughter of another former prominent politician, Imangali Tasmagambetov. The money will be used for the purchase of masks, ventilators, and test kits.
Kyrgyzstan has declared state of emergency, closed non-essential stores, restricted travel, and enacted a curfew. The IMF have approved US$120.9m in financial assistance to address the challenges posed by COVID-19. The Education Ministry will begin broadcasting classes for schoolchildren via local television stations from 8 April.
The export of key basic supplies (wheat, vegetable oil, eggs, pasta, disinfectant) has been banned. People are allowed out to shop for food within a 1.5km radius from their residence, while pets are only allowed to be walked up to 100m from their residence. People out in public must present documents and a self-declaration form showing the purpose of their journey, their origin and destination.
Industry is now turning to the production of medical equipment, with Eurasianet reporting that ‘even small sewing factories in Bishkek… have turned their hand to making disposable masks and hospital gowns. Even a modest workshop can turn out 15,000 masks a day.’
Having criticised health officials for not doing enough to track down people who had come into contact with those diagnosed with COVID-19, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov fired the Minister for Health and the Deputy Minister on 1 April.
As in Kazakhstan, former political leaders, such as ex-premier Omurbek Babanov, are setting up funds to fight the crisis.
So far Tajikistan has no officially recorded cases of COVID-19. This has been supported by Galina Perfilyeva of the WHO, who on 1 April stated that 700 tests had resulted in no positive cases. More recently, on 6 April, the Health Ministry was forced to deny that a 60 year old man had died from COVID-19, insisting it was pneumonia. Asia Plus reported that the authorities are not certain how many ventilators they have available for use. In late February the Education and Science Ministry had ordered a halt to rehearsals for the Norwuz festival, but events went ahead as planned: in Khujand up to 12,000 people packed into a stadium for celebrations. Mosques were briefly closed for disinfection but reopened on 19 March. A day later, airports were closed. Emomali Rahmon has emphasised the excellent sanitary standards of Tajikistan.
Nevertheless, quarantine facilities have been set up for arrivals from abroad, with people complaining of a lack of hot water and blankets at one facility near Varzob. Panic buying has led to an increase in the price of key goods, with 1kg of potatoes rising from 3.8 somoni to 5 somoni in two weeks. Germany has donated €1 million to Tajikistan for training and the purchase of PPE and other medical equipment, while the Asian Development Bank has supplied $100,000, and WHO and USAID have sent PPE for hospital staff. As with Belarus, sporting events continue with the Tajikistan Higher League kicking off on5 April, and the national basketball league is the only professional basketball league still operating globally.
No cases have yet been officially recorded, however Radio Azatlyk has claimed that ten people travelling by ferry from Azerbaijan had tested positive and there were two cases at a medical facility near Choganli. Radio Azatlyk has also claimed that citizens are banned from discussing coronavirus in public. There has been almost no mention of coronavirus in state media, but flights have been cancelled, booklets covering infection guidelines have been distributed, borders have been closed, and Ashgabat has been sealed off without any public announcements. The Health Ministry has more recently set up a telephone hotline for members of the public who desire information on coronavirus. ‘Eurasianet’ news agency called the hotline on 1 April and was told by an operator that people had “telephoned frequently” with queries and that there was no truth to the claim that saying the word ‘coronavirus’ had been forbidden.’
The price of cooking oil has increased by 50% in a week, food in state-run stores remains at fixed prices but demand is high, and these items are being rationed, making it hard to find supplies. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has emphasised the effectiveness of using yuzarlik, a medicinal desert plant, in fumigating homes and preventing infectious disease.
Following the first recorded case in the country, Uzbekistan declared a state of emergency from 16 March, borders and schools were closed, public transport suspended, and travel by car in cities is banned. The Head of the State Inspectorate for Sanitary and Epidemiological Control has said that the government will only consider ending the lockdown after 14 days of no recorded cases. People aged over 65 are forbidden from leaving home except for trips to local grocery stores and pharmacies. Citizens who appear in public without a mask can be fined 1.1 million som, approximately double the monthly minimum wage. From 6 April these restrictions were strengthened – anyone on the street in Tashkent, Nukus, or other “regional centres” without good reason can be fined up to 6.6million som (almost $700).
Deputy Justice Minister Khuduyor Meliyev stated that anyone placed in quarantine after being diagnosed would have their phones, bank cards, and any audio or video equipment temporarily confiscated as these items “could be carriers of the virus”.  Anyone “sharing information with the intention of inciting panic can face up to US$9,400 in fines and three years in prison.”
Ten new hospitals are being built in Tashkent, Andijan, Navoi and Surkhandarya. The textile industry association Uztekstilprom has seen a tenfold increase in the number of firms producing medical masks, with 195 firms producing up to 2.6m units each day. The World Bank has indicated it is willing to provide US$1.2billion to fund healthcare and social welfare programmes during the crisis.
Dilmurad Yusupov is a Doctoral Researcher at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, and co-founder of NGO “Sharoit Plus” (Opportunity Plus) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan to promote an inclusive society for all. Another participant in last November’s BEARR Trust Annual Conference on ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’, he has provided us with some insight on the situation in Uzbekistan.
- On how COVID-19 is affecting the work of NGOs in Uzbekistan:
“The government of Uzbekistan has introduced strict measures of self-quarantine and social distancing and the activities of the NGOs in Uzbekistan are halted while all the attention in the media is directed towards COVID-19 and other issues are left behind. Moreover, individual charity donations (allocating goods of basic necessity) and support by volunteers to those in need has been temporarily banned in Uzbekistan (so as) not to put the elderly and vulnerable people at risk of getting COVID–19. Currently, volunteers can only provide support via a special fund and a help centre at the Ministry for the Support of Mahallas and Family. I personally don’t support this as neither hokimiyat (local governments), nor the Ministry can apply a targeted approach at the grassroots level. Better leave this job to NGOs and volunteers and take all necessary safety measures when allocating charity to those in need.” – DY
- On the effect quarantine will have on victims of domestic violence:
Dilmurad pointed to an excellent article on the topic by the Uzbekistani journalist and women’s rights activist Irina Matvienko in Uzbek Review (https://uzbek.review/how-covid-19-coronavirus-can-affect-the-situation-of-women/), in which she raised the following points:
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), women perform three to four times more unpaid housework than men. If people are confined to their homes, there is a high probability that the onus will be on women to take on the housework at the expense of paid work from home.
[In China, Wan Fei, the head of an anti-domestic violence non-profit organisation in Hubei province, announced that a local police station had received three times the number of reported domestic violence cases in February 2020 (162) than they had in February 2019 (47).]
For victims of domestic abuse, lockdown can mean being trapped inside with abusers. Abusive partners may withhold necessary items such as disinfectant, they may prevent survivors seeking medical attention, they may use disinformation to control survivors, and they may feel more justified in escalating isolation tactics. Victims have fewer options, those with underlying conditions face increased risk at locations where they would usually get support (shelters, counselling centres, courts), the programmes that serve survivors may have significantly reduced services, and travel restrictions (lack of public transport, air travel) may impact a victim’s escape plan.
A report by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), showed that in Uzbekistan, between July 2018 and November 2019, 15,000 women and girls visited centres for the rehabilitation and support of survivors of domestic violence.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Uzbekistan says that they are continuing to act on women’s reports of domestic violence cases as usual, with Women’s Affairs Inspectors providing assistance to victims of domestic abuse while following all the recommended safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There is a hotline (1169) for victims of violence, and they have the right to receive free legal, economic, social, psychological and medical assistance. Rehabilitation centres continue to operate and in the recent period they have not run out of spaces for survivors of violence.
- On the impact “social distancing” could have on disabled, elderly, and other vulnerable people in Uzbekistan:
Dilmurad has a blog in which he examines the negative impact of “social distancing” on people who struggle without the support of others (https://dilmurad.me/how-is-more-vulnerable-to-the-coronavirus/).
In brief: Only 2% of people living with disabilities in Uzbekistan are employed. ‘Those with congenital impairments who were able to register at the Medical Labour Expert Commissions (VTEK) receive a disability benefit in the amount of 466,680 Uzbekistani som per month (less than US$50 per month!).’ These people rely on financial and social support from relatives, friends, and charitable donations. At the same time those in state institutions (homes for the elderly, sanatoriums, boarding houses, orphanages) are at particular risk due to the poor financing and lack of developed training of staff.
Armenia has been the hardest hit country in the Caucasus, with 833 cases as of 12:12 on 6 April. From 1 March, following the first diagnosed case, education institutions were shut down. A state of emergency was declared on 16 March. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has announced that the government intends to allocate at least US$300 million to support the economy. Official information is being distributed by the National Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and restrictive fines are being imposed on news that runs contrary to the official reports. The Ministry of Technology is calling for Armenian engineers to help with the construction of new ventilators and the repair of existing ones.
On 30 March the Ministry of Justice, in a similar action to other countries, drafted a law allowing the government to collect mobile phone data, including geolocation, numbers called, and times of calls, to help track the movements of people diagnosed with COVID-19. However, members of the opposition are concerned by the potential human rights infringements of such a law, with Naira Zohrabyan of the Prosperous Armenia Party urging parliament to divert resources to testing for the disease rather than surveillance.
On 7 April Prime Minister Pashinyan expressed cautious optimism that measures were working, as the rate of new diagnosesd cases began to slow, with a decrease in the number of “extremely critical cases.” He also stated that only half of the 1,400 hospital beds designated for COVID-19 patients were in use.
The Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport has collaborated with public television to curate a series of classes that cover school subjects, as well as other items of social interest such as theatre performances. It is also producing academic video lessons for students, available on the Ministry’s Youtube and Facebook pages, an online platform to support teachers with “distance learning”, and is in talks with international manufacturers to acquire donations of tablets and other computing devices to distribute to socially vulnerable families to ensure they can access the services.
A full lockdown has been in place since 31 March, with most residents forbidden from leaving home except in emergencies. Travel between regions has been banned, non-essential shops have been ordered to close, public areas restricted, and public transport has been shut down. On 19 March an information portal went online to provide news and recommendations related to the outbreak.
The Justice Ministry has started to release prisoners who are close to the end of their sentences in order to lower the risk of the virus spreading in prisons, but no political prisoners are being released under this measure. President Ilham Aliyev has faced criticism from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) for appearing to use the crisis to disempower the opposition. Aliyev had described opposition members who ‘refused to enter into a dialogue with the authorities, a “fifth column.”’
Like the methods proposed in Russia, residents will have to submit an application to the police to be granted permission to leave their homes; this is to be done via an app and came into effect from midnight on 5 April. Reasons for which people will be allowed to leave home include seeking food or medical supplies, going to the bank, attending a funeral, or for 30 minutes of exercise within a 200m radius of home. Masks will be required for anyone going outside in public.
Georgia closed all schools and launched a public health campaign in early March, announcing an economic stimulus plan on 13 March. International travel is banned and nonessential businesses are closed. US$10 million in subsidies has been allocated to keep the prices of key food products stable until 15 May, in response to the drastic drop in value of the Georgian Lari. Alcohol sales have been banned for the duration of the state of emergency (at least until 21 April), while public transport has been banned and travel between towns is prohibited. There is also a nightly curfew from 21:00-06:00. On 6 April the Health Ministry launched a pneumococcal vaccination drive to help prevent pneumonia brought on by COVID-19.
Georgia suspended an agreement to buy coronavirus tests from a Chinese company after several tests produced incorrect results. Ketevan Tsikhelashivili, Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, has ‘expressed readiness to provide aid for citizens residing in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,’ where authorities have cut ties with all relief organisations except the Red Cross.
The Prague Civil Society Centre has been reporting civil society responses to the pandemic in different countries on https://praguecivilsociety.org/pandemic-civic-response-bulletin-republic-of-georgia/?fbclid=IwAR3CVnO2KyktiPrRd9S4O6Y6PUnsYwF9ICGvVY07HL_SdmH9oOTSXhfgL1I) and they continue to post updates. In Georgia it has highlighted the work of donation site giveinternet.org, which provides internet access and laptops to disadvantaged students, Salam Georgia (https://www.facebook.com/SalamGeorgia/) who are producing public health posters and infographics in the Azeri language to help get the right information to more people, ‘Let’s Help the Elderly’ (https://www.facebook.com/groups/483937615824418/) who have raised more than US$30,000 to provide meals to the elderly, supportbusiness.ge, ‘a platform offering free consulting and online courses to smaller businesses to help them acclimate to the new reality,’ Unity, a platform connecting volunteers with people who need assistance, and prevencia.ge, a website that catalogues products and services available remotely which is also using its newfound popularity to challenge misinformation about the virus.
Elmar Khalilov, a youth ambassador for Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE) and member of the Anti-Violence Network Georgia (AVNG), who also participated in last November’s BEARR Trust Annual Conference on ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’, has shared his experience of the situation in Georgia.
- On how COVID-19 is affecting the work of WAVE and the AVNG:
“In Georgia almost all NGOs postponed their plans and projects for an unclear period, most of them continue their work online and provide charity.”
- On the impact of lockdowns/quarantine:
The public have real concerns about the financial situation, as Georgia is a small country without a strong economy. The lockdown will impact the lives of middle- and working-class citizens more as they struggle to care for relatives and stay alive.
Students are worried about the academic year, the education system has been transferred online but there have been difficulties in implementing this transition.
Elmar is particularly concerned about the international situation, with countries closing their borders and no certainty as to how long this will last, how many waves of infection may occur. Georgia will suffer from the lack of tourism in the summer which, along with the weakened economies of other countries that Georgia’s economy relies on, will have a really damaging effect.
- On the Georgian response to the crisis:
“In general the Georgian government responded very quickly and effectively, the government provided good organization and mobilization ability in very limited time, that’s why we did not have a high death rate in the country… the population is supporting and considers the steps of the Georgian government successful, as internationally Georgia government is among the top countries which are effectively struggling with the virus. The Prime Minister announced that government public services will be free for some families with need of help. Despite quarantine citizens truly trust the Georgian government and support its steps at the right moment.” – EK
- On any positive outcomes from this crisis:
“[The] positive effect of the current world situation will be on nature. I hope climate change will stop for some period and people will understand the importance of this green and healthy world. I stay at home and stay positive about the future. I believe that as a country and as a world we will recover from this situation very soon.” – EK
 Balkan Insight, 3 April 2020 https://balkaninsight.com/2020/04/03/new-pandemic-fees-on-returnees-divide-moldovans/