Uzbekistan’s coronavirus measures disproportionately affecting its at-risk populations

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Most of the countries in Central Asia have taken strict and swift measures to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. Uzbekistan reported its first cases of the virus on March 15th and responded with particularly intense measures to prevent the spread of it. However, while these measures are necessary to mitigate the spreading of coronavirus, the Uzbek government is not considering the economic and social impact that these measures disproportionally have on the at-risk and low-income populations.

Active quarantine measures

The first city to be placed on quarantine measures was the capital, Tashkent, followed by a few more regional cities. On March 27th, it was decided that all traffic, besides cargo, would be prevented from traveling between cities and regions. A few days later on March 30th, cars were banned from driving in Tashkent, unless issued a special certificate. This certificate is given to essential businesses, healthcare workers, and government officials. While this reduced most car traffic, people could be seen riding bicycles and scooters a few days later throughout the capital, which is uncommon in Uzbekistan barring the circumstances. However, on April 17th, the Uzbek government banned bicycles and scooters throughout the country, except for essential business purposes, in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Although these measures are necessary for stopping the spread of the deadly virus in the country, government leaders should be aware that these policies disproportionally affect the middle and lower classes. Government officials and large-scale business owners are still permitted to drive—and indeed have the means to—, a luxury not afforded to most of the at risk population. Metros, buses, and other pubic transportation were halted a few days prior to the car and bicycle bans. This leaves traveling by foot as the only option for ordinary citizens, including for some workers and older and disabled citizens.

Effect on at-risk and lower income populations

The response to the coronavirus pandemic is the first major test for President Mirziyoyev’s regime after coming to power in 2016. While these quarantine measures may slow the increase of the pandemic within Uzbekistan, these same measures create larger issues for at-risk and lower-income populations. Members of these groups must either stay home without enough money for basic essentials, walk and come in contact with other people—increasing their risk of contracting the virus—or choose to use their vehicles illegally. The decision to use vehicles illegally seems to be what most people are choosing. In poorer districts and regions, there have been many instances of police citing fines for illegally operating a vehicle or forging the documentation required to drive.

In contrast, wealthier Uzbeks do not need to worry about working during the quarantine because they likely have stable jobs in the government sector or can use their connections to get the paperwork to drive. At the very least, they have enough wealth to pay the hefty fine for driving without official paperwork. These latter two choices seem to be what wealthier Uzbeks are choosing, evident by the many foreign cars (Mercedes, BMW) and higher-end Chevy models (Malibu, Captiva) that can be seen driving throughout the streets of the capital. Instituting the aforementioned quarantine measures has manifested increasing inequality in Uzbekistan.

Corruption

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Ozodlik, which is blocked within Uzbekistan, has recently reported that Chinese nationals who work at major construction sites around the country are getting through the border checks by bribing various government officials. If Uzbekistan’s government is serious about stemming the flow of people into and within the country and slowing the virus infection rate, it should take serious action against government and business officials partaking in illegally helping individuals enter the country.

A corrupt system only benefits the already wealthy and powerful, leaving the-at risk populations only more disadvantaged. Business and government officials accepting bribes demonstrates their “above the law mentality” and continually threatens the health of everyone in Uzbekistan. It should be a priority for all sectors of Uzbek society to return to some degree of normalcy; however, using corrupt means to get Chinese workers back into the country only extends the lifting of quarantine measures. The Chief State Sanitary Inspector, Nurmat Otabekov, said that the quarantine would continue until no new cases of infection are recorded for 14 days. By illegally sneaking Chinese workers across the borders, government officials risk perpetuating these quarantine measures longer than necessary.

Economic impact

Uzbekistan’s at-risk populations are subject to dangerous economic impacts the longer this quarantine continues. Small businesses throughout the country have been closed for weeks, with no real end in sight. This is problematic when these same small businesses employ 76% of the working Uzbek population. In addition, if the quarantine continues, it is projected that the unemployment rate will increase from 9% to 40%. Assuming these statistics are correct, the already-disadvantaged in Uzbekistan will be disproportionately affected by these economic consequences.

As is the case worldwide, the lower and middle classes of Uzbek society live paycheck to paycheck, and if these small businesses remain closed, it will severely hamper ordinary Uzbeks’ abilities to provide for their families. In some cases, Uzbeks have been stealing from markets to provide food for their family. Situations like these will continue until the government provides meaningful assistance for the disadvantaged populations.

Small business workers—including restaurant workers—are some of the lowest paid in Uzbekistan and suffer the most as the quarantine continues. Most restaurants have been closed for over two weeks, with no end to this shutdown in sight. The Uzbek government has not taken minimal efforts to protect these individuals and their families. Currently, government sponsored volunteers are provided foodstuffs to some of these at risk families. However, this is not sustainable in the long run. As most other businesses are also closed, attempting to find work, even part-time, is impossible, so these workers are going to need to find other sources of income in the coming days and weeks.

Over the past few years, President Mirziyoyev has worked diligently to rid the country of informal labor and black markets. Yet the current pandemic threatens to undo all this work if people are unable to find traditional work. As a result, post-pandemic Uzbekistan could suffer far more economic pain than necessary if the government does not take action to protect vulnerable populations.

Government assistance

The Uzbek government has recently announced assistance to large-scale businesses—including deferred interest and loan-repayment plans—measures not offered to the ordinary Uzbek. Granted, President Mirziyoyev recently returned a bill to lawmakers requesting additional protections for at-risk populations. Yet, the longer the bills take being discussed, the direr the situation becomes for the vulnerable populations.

Instead of offering any monetary benefits to the public, President Mirziyoyev has asked citizens to begin growing their own food and raising livestock if they have the means to do so. However, creating gardens and buying livestock requires money to begin with, and for those that live in apartments—like in Tashkent—this is not a viable option. The Uzbek government needs to take quick action if they hope to mitigate the economic damage from this pandemic.

Conclusion

In the coming days, Uzbekistan’s government needs to implement updated measures to protect its most at-risk—the lower and middle classes—from the economic impacts of the coronavirus. As of April 18th, this assistance has not come; instead, it was announced that quarantine measures would be extended for an additional three weeks, until May 10. If the government creates more demands on its population, it should also take into consideration the consequences for its at-risk populations—after all, it is these same working class, ordinary Uzbeks, who will help bring Uzbekistan back to normalcy after the Coronavirus pandemic. Without them, Uzbekistan will suffer economic, political, and social ramifications for years to come.

Recommendations

  • Protect and assist low-income families impacted by the business closures— including measures such as debt relief—and continue its donation of food packages. Although food packages are helpful in the short term, if the quarantine measures continue, something more sustainable will need to occur.   
  • Keep borders strictly closed until they are officially open by the government. If individuals can bribe their way across borders, it puts the entire country’s health at risk.
  • Increasing test—as more individuals are tested or can demonstrate immunity, they can potentially return to their daily lives and re-open businesses.
  • Donations from wealthier Uzbeks and international donors could help alleviate some of the strain on the Uzbek government and allow for aid to be dispersed to the vulnerable populations.

As of 19th of April, Uzbekistan had reported 1,495 cases of coronavirus, 5 deaths and 194 recoveries

Ryan Schweitzer

Ryan Schweitzer is a graduate of Columbia University and a current Fulbright research student in Uzbekistan. His research interests include security, identity formation, and nationalism in Central Asia


The views expressed in this articles do not necessarily reflect the views of Blue Domes

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