Tajik authorities said they had registered 15 coronavirus cases in the country, the first such cases after weeks of mounting speculation that officials were suppressing information about the disease.
The confirmation of the cases, made April 30 by the government task force charged with fighting the coronavirus, poses a dangerous challenge for the authoritarian government.
Tajikistan’s health-care system is underfunded and unequipped to deal with a widespread outbreak of cases. The government, under President Emomali Rahmon, has suppressed opposition parties, civil society groups, and independent media for years, leading to a vacuum of information.
The country’s Health Ministry said five coronavirus cases had been recorded in Dushanbe and 10 in the northern city of Khujand.
The ministry did not release any further details such as when the cases were discovered or which hospitals the patients were being treated at.
The state-run Khovar news agency said that the task force ordered that all Tajiks must now wear face coverings when outdoors.
Even as infections skyrocketed in other Central Asian nations, Rahmon flouted warnings from international experts to order social-distancing restrictions or other measures to try to curtail any spread of the disease.
Suspicion has grown amid a spike in respiratory diseases that have been described as pneumonia or tuberculosis.
Even though it had not confirmed any cases at the time, the government last week closed schools for two weeks and suspended the national soccer season over the coronavirus.
Adding to the confusion, the country representative of the World Health Organization, Galina Perfilyeva, has for weeks repeated government insistence that there were no cases in the country.
On April 27, she warned that the country must be ready for the “worst-case scenario.” WHO officials said a team of experts were expected to travel to Tajikistan on April 30.
Turkmenistan now is the only country in Central Asia that has not officially reported any cases of the virus.
Other countries across Central Asia have begun to ease restrictions that were suspended over the coronavirus outbreak.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Mukhammedkalyi Abylgaziev said on April 30 that the resumption of economic activities will take into consideration priorities and proceed in 10-day stages beginning on May 1.
According to Abylgaziev, his cabinet has allocated some $9 million for measures to slow the spread of the virus.
Kyrgyz Interior Minister Kashkar Junushaliev told reporters on April 30 that all checkpoints in Bishkek, the capital, will be removed on May 1 and that police will patrol streets to monitor vehicle movements.
The Health Ministry said on April 30 that the number of coronavirus cases in the country had reached 746, including eight deaths.
Neighboring Uzbekistan has begun to ease restrictions as well, announcing that, as of April 30, citizens could resume using private cars from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The use of private vehicles was temporarily banned in March because of the pandemic.
A day earlier, the Uzbek government extended the suspension of all flights abroad to June 30. International flights, except cargo flights, were suspended initially for one month on March 30.
According to health officials, there were 2,017 coronavirus cases, including nine deaths, in Uzbekistan as of April 30.
The largest number of coronavirus cases in the region has been officially registered in Kazakhstan, where the latest figures on April 30 were 3,273 cases with 25 deaths.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called on Kazakhstan to stop harassing journalists covering the coronavirus outbreak in the country, saying they are being subjected to “interrogation, prosecution, and violation of the confidentiality of their sources.”
“On the pretext of avoiding panic, the authorities are harassing journalists and bloggers who stray from the official line on the epidemic,” Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement on April 30.
“This exploitation of the state of emergency is harming press freedom in Kazakhstan. It must stop,” Cavelier added.
The statement cited the case of Zaure Mirzakhodjaeva, a journalist and blogger in the southern city of Shymkent, who was summoned and questioned by the police for seven hours last week over a Facebook post.
It said Mirzakhodjaeva is now being criminally investigated for allegedly spreading false information.
Media in Kazakhstan have been subjected to “judicial harassment” since the Central Asian country declared a state of emergency on March 16, according to RSF.
The Paris-based media freedom watchdog said the authorities are “monitoring social media and media outlets closely for what they regard as excessive criticism of the government’s handling of the health crisis.”
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has shortened a three-day weekend curfew to just one day to allow for celebrations of the May 1 holiday amid ongoing public protests over restrictions imposed to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
“We propose that the curfew begin at 6 p.m. [on April 30] and last until [May 1] at 5 a.m.,” Vucic told state broadcaster RTS on April 29.
An original plan would have imposed a curfew from the evening of April 30 until the morning of May 4 in order to limit gatherings of people in public places. Serbs traditionally celebrate May 1 with large picnics.
Serbia introduced draconian measures last month, including a state of emergency, the closure of borders, a daily curfew from 5 p.m., and total lockdowns all weekend, including all four days of the Orthodox Easter holiday.
Gatherings of more than five people remain banned, Vucic said.
The decision follows three nights of noisy protests by Serb citizens who were stuck at home and resorted to banging tin pans and drums to vent their anger at the government and its tough containment measures against the virus.
The protests are similar to one held in 1996 and 1997 in response to what they saw as electoral fraud attempts by the Socialist Party of Serbia, led by President Slobodan Milosevic, after local elections in 1996.
The coronavirus protests have also provided an outlet for discontent with the policies of Vucic, a former nationalist firebrand and ex-information minister under Milosevic who later adopted pro-European values.
Many Serbs say Vucic, in power since 2012, and his ruling coalition are displaying traits of authoritarianism, employing oppression against political opponents, stifling media freedoms, corruption, cronyism, and ties with organized crime.
Vucic and his allies deny such accusations.
As of April 2, the number of coronavirus infections in Serbia was almost 8,500, with 168 deaths, according to Serbia’s Health Ministry.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.