The Impact of COVID-19 on rural communities in Eastern Europe and Central Asia
7 August 2020
A report by Nathan Dampier, BEARR Trust volunteer
COVID-19 Statistics in the EECA region as of 15:43 GMT – 04/08/20
(in parentheses – comparison to 12/06/20)
|EASTERN EUROPE||Confirmed Cases||Confirmed Recoveries||Confirmed Deaths||Cases per 1M pop||Deaths per 1M pop||Tests per 1M pop|
|RUSSIA||861,423 (+350,000)||661,471 (+392,101)||14,351(+7,636)||5,903||98||200,094|
Rural populations and economic output in Central Asia and the South Caucasus
Rural populations in Central Asia and the South Caucasus are both sizeable and particularly vulnerable at times of crisis. According to data from IFAD (The International Fund for Agricultural Development) and the World Bank, 65% of the population of Kyrgyzstan live in rural areas where they depend heavily on agriculture, remittances and welfare.Just a few years ago almost a quarter of rural Kyrgyz households were food insecure, lacking a reliable source of accessible, affordable nutritious food. 73% of Tajikistan’s poor live in rural areas, and one third of the entire population suffers undernourishment. In 2017, agriculture accounted for 25% of Tajikistan’s GDP. In Uzbekistan, 49.5% of the total population and 75% of the country’s lower-income population live in rural areas. Agriculture makes up around 17.5% of GDP. In Armenia, 37% of the population live in rural areas, while agriculture employs 35% of the workforce and contributes 15% of GDP. In Azerbaijan, 47% of the population lives in rural areas and 39% of employment is in agriculture. Farming accounts for 45% of household income in Georgia’s rural areas.
IFAD stresses the added pressures on rural communities during the pandemic. They tend to have less access to clean water, making it difficult to maintain hygiene . Healthcare and medicines are less accessible, with healthcare centres sparsely distributed and public transport reduced or halted altogether. Farmers cannot isolate or they risk their harvests. Communities are also impacted by a reduction in remittances from family members no longer able to work abroad.
Healthcare outside the centre
Since restrictions were eased a second wave has hit Central Asia, putting great stress on healthcare services, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have extended quarantine until August 15th . Kyrgyzstan, despite Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov’s concern about the crippling effect another period of quarantine would have on the economy, has imposed quarantine in the Aksy district in Jalal-Abad Oblast.
Kazakhstan saw a surge in cases in the Pavlodar region in late June, with hospitals and pharmacies stretched to capacity. A shortage of beds has meant many patients are forced to isolate at home, where they receive daily calls to monitor their condition. Officials in the region were calling on anyone with a medical background to support medical workers, even employing people serving suspended criminal sentences. Further support came in the form of a truck full of medical supplies and PPE donated to a hospital in the region by an anonymous Moscow-based businessman. Their only condition was that all the goods were to be used transparently, and free of charge to those most in need. The donor also arranged a consultation with a Moscow-based professor who offered recommendations on providing appropriate medical assistance to local people.
In Uzbekistan there has been criticism of the ‘generally upbeat epidemiological picture’ confected by the government and “state-loyal” journalists. Despite only 8,000 active cases in a population of 34 million people, medical officials at the start of July warned that the health system was on the verge of reaching capacity. Uzbekistan adopted quarantine measures early, in mid-March. However, due to concerns over rising unemployment and the economy, the government began loosening restrictions in early May, resulting in a surge in infections. By early July, the spokesman for Uzbekistan’s coronavirus crisis centre, Khabibulla Akilov, warned that the healthcare system faced total collapse if the daily rate of new infections reached 1,000. President Mirziyoev reprimanded regional officials, particularly those in Tashkent region, for a failure to control the situation. Pharmacies have run out of respiratory medicines. Even when they can be found, there have been reports of price rises of as much as 800%. Mirziyoev ordered an increase in ambulance crews to the region to address the long waits faced by people who cannot even get through to the national emergency phone number. While cases are most concentrated in the capital, Tashkent, ambulance wait times are thought to be worse in rural areas. Deputy Prime Minister Behzod Musayev expressed concern about the Surkhandaryan and Andijan regions.
In Kyrgyzstan officials have taken to enlisting medical students to replace staff who had contracted coronavirus.Severe staff shortages can be illustrated by the fact that just a few weeks ago, 15% of all coronavirus infections in the country were recorded amongst medical staff. Reports indicate that the approximately US$600m from international donors such as the IMF and Asian Development Bank appears to have been used to fund the state budget, for paying wages and covering social welfare payments, rather than for purchasing PPE for medical workers. Medical workers are also particularly vulnerable financially; the starting salary for doctors is around US$52 a month, the highest earners receive US$169 a month; the average monthly salary in Kyrgyzstan is US$221.
Tilek Toktogaziev, a civil activist, criticised the lack of investment in regional hospitals in Kyrgyzstan. Funds are being freed to support the healthcare system in Bishkek and Osh, major cities where the outbreak is more acute, but this comes at the expense of district and rural hospitals still operating on Soviet-era technology. Toktogaziev has been travelling the country installing oxygen supply units in regional hospitals. He says residents and businessmen have covered the expenses, with no input from the state.
The effects of healthcare provision being concentrated in the major hubs can be seen across the wider region. Crowded cities enable a more rapid spread of the coronavirus and lead to more intense outbreaks, which require investment to increase the capacity of hospitals to cope with demand. However, rural and regional hospitals, already less well equipped to deal with any health crisis, get left to fend for themselves. A quick search of any crowdfunding website will reveal the number of pages set up to raise funds for essential medical equipment and supplies for these rural hospitals.
In Ukraine, Iryna Korliakova, a displaced person from the conflict in south-eastern Ukraine, is one of 2,048 people who attended community mobilisation programmes run by UN Women. Using skills she developed on the course, Korliakova established a series of online message groups to facilitate information exchange amongst disparate rural communities. These groups were able to support one another and re-established a water supply to the local ‘feldsher’ (primary healthcare) station (the only medical facility in the area).
In Armenia, the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) received a €28,000 grant from the Republic of Estonia to help combat the spread of COVID in rural areas. The money will be spent on medical supplies and PPE for 33 health facilities in the Lori and Shirak regions. This has been welcomed by managing director of COAF Korioun Khatchadourian, who stressed the need to strengthen rural healthcare infrastructure.
UNDP Georgia, with US$150,000 in funding from the Swedish government, are assisting the Georgian National Centre for Disease Control in developing a new e-learning platform for medical staff. The initiative should train 4,000 medical personnel in enhanced infection prevention and control. Local UNDP Head Louisa Vinton praised the Georgian response to the virus and said the new system will help close the disparity in medical capabilities between rural and urban areas.
Impact on harvesting and distribution
Quarantine and lockdown measures have had a significant impact on the sale and distribution of agricultural goods, both externally and internally. The income from fruit and vegetable exports from Uzbekistan in the first six months of 2020 is 40% lower than the same period in 2019. The situation has been similar in Ukraine, where fruit and vegetable exports are 43% lower than last year.
Closed borders and coronavirus checkpoints have seen long traffic queues and delays. Food exports to China are being tested to ensure they are not contaminated with coronavirus, causing delays with delivery. Traditionally produce from Tajikistan would be exported through Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan to Russia. However, the border with Kyrgyzstan has been closed, while the route through Uzbekistan has become congested with the extra traffic and delays at the borders for COVID testing. Along with hot weather (up to 45C), these delays are causing produce to spoil before it can reach its destination. Instead, farmers in Tajikistan are having to sell their fruit and vegetables domestically. This is flooding the domestic market and driving down prices for exporters and smaller, local sellers. While this means prices for the Tajik population are more affordable, the loss in income to producers could well see lower production (and lower exports) next year, further threatening the economy.
In Kazakhstan, the closure of city markets has seen farmers unable to sell their produce at competitive prices. In one village, farmers fed around 200kg of spoiling cottage cheese to livestock to prevent it going to waste. Even if local officials reopened rural markets, there would not be enough consumers to purchase the volume of produce intended for sale at the weekend city markets. The choice for producers is to take the meagre prices being offered, or see the produce go to waste. Disruption to travel both internally, from rural heartlands to urban hubs, and across borders, have directly threatened the livelihoods of agricultural producers, particularly small-scale farmers who rely on currently heavily reduced public transport services to take their produce to market.
To increase agriculture’s resilience to supply chain shocks like this, investment is being poured into storage solutions. The Uzbekistan government is to invest US$212m in farming cooperatives to increase their capacity to process, store, and export products. In Tajikistan, around 20 million somoni (US$2m) will be invested in improving and developing 14 warehouses with refrigeration capabilities.
In Georgia, the government have implemented initiatives to lessen the impact of coronavirus on the economy of rural communities. More than 115,000 farmers have benefited from government subsidies of up to 200 lari per hectare (US$65) for purchasing agricultural equipment as well as co-financing to cover the interest on farmers’ loans. The Agricultural Production Assistance Programme continues to provide grants of up to 50,000 lari (US$16,300) for small-to-medium sized farms to invest in machinery, greenhouse modernisation, and irrigation installation. 380 applications have been accepted so far.
For an overview of COVID’s impact on migrant workers in Eastern Europe and Central Asia as of June 2020 see https://bearr.org/2020/06/13/how-covid-19-has-affected-migrant-workers-in-eastern-europe-and-central-asia/.
There are around 7.6 million migrant workers from Central Asia, most of whom work in the Russian Federation, Turkey, or Kazakhstan. The Russian Federation hosts approximately 12 million migrants, although some reports estimate around 60% of migrants are in country illegally. 1 million Moldovans work abroad, largely to Russia and Italy.
Without work during lockdown, many migrant workers found themselves unable to pay rent or for their work permits. With borders closed, many found themselves unable to return home and there were reports of migrants stuck at airports and land borders.
Those who do make it home also have great difficulty finding work. The IOM (International Organisation for Migration) Chief in Ukraine, Ahn Nguyen, explained that in Ukraine (where remittances account for around 10% of GDP), an estimated 400,000 Ukrainian migrant workers returned from abroad to find a domestic labour market unprepared, and unable, to take the influx in labour. Many are forced to survive on savings.
The loss of income is particularly devastating to migrant workers’ families and communities who rely on remittances to purchase essentials. An IOM report highlighted that in Tajikistan, 86% of money sent back by an overwhelming majority of young, unqualified migrants is used by the family in Tajikistan to meet basic current consumption needs. In the first six months of 2020, Tajikistan has seen a 15% decrease (compared to last year) amounting to around US$195m. Head of state-owned savings bank Amonatbank Sirojiddin Ikromi stressed that the loss of remittances would lead to higher unemployment and reduced consumption, which means a sharp decline in tax revenues.
Remittances make up a substantial percentage of GDP in countries across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus: Kyrgyzstan (33%), Tajikistan (29%), Moldova (16%), Uzbekistan (15%), Armenia (12%), Georgia (11.6%), and Ukraine (11%). For Kyrgyzstan, the anticipated 15% decline in remittances will translate into a loss of approximately $361m in local economies. Rural communities, where there are fewer opportunities to generate income, tend to rely on remittances more than urban communities. In Kazakhstan, the average income of urban dwellers was over 40% higher than those in rural areas during the first quarter of 2020. According to IFAD, over 50% of remittances worldwide are sent to rural households. These communities have already seen a massive dent in their incomes through the reduced income resulting from local lockdowns. This is further compounded by the loss in remittance income.
It is not just the loss of work that has meant migrant workers are unable to generate income to send home in remittance payments, some remittance service providers were unable to operate during lockdowns. IFAD called on governments worldwide to declare remittance service providers “essential businesses” in times of crisis, improve regulation of transfer operators, and improve access in rural areas.