‘The Fields Heal Everyone’: Post-Soviet Leaders’ Coronavirus Denial
MOSCOW — The leaders of several former Soviet republics in Central Asia and elsewhere are still denying the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, weeks after most other governments abandoned that approach.
In Turkmenistan, ranked worst in the world for press freedom last year by Reporters Without Borders, state media began reporting on the virus only last week, monitors say. The president has promoted a medicinal herb as a cure.
In Belarus, the president has kept schools and businesses open while promoting folk remedies like steaming in a sauna or drinking vodka, saying, “It’s better to die on your feet than on your knees.”
And in Tajikistan, the authorities herded thousands of students into a stadium for a Persian new year party, at which the president gave a speech extolling his citizens’ cleanliness as a reason the epidemic has not taken hold there.
Caught in strange eddies of history, these leaders, all former Soviet apparatchiks who still operate Soviet-style states with near total control over the police and the news media, are lingering as some of the last “total deniers” of the severity of the virus, said Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and an authority on Central Asia.
It is unfortunate, he said, because given the impressive apparatus of repression in these states, it “would be so remarkably easy to mobilize and centralize the response around this epidemic.”
Instead, they have continued down the ever-lonelier path of playing down the problem, a strategy that has backfired elsewhere.
Most leaders who first minimized the threat have done an about face, including President Trump, who once compared the deadly pathogen disease to a seasonal flu.
Until last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain had pursued a strategy of mitigating the virus that resisted serious restrictions on movement. “I’m shaking hands continuously,” he said, before contracting the coronavirus himself and going into isolation.
Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has also held out. Although this week he described the pandemic as “the greatest challenge of our generation,” he has not endorsed strict isolation measures, even as the country’s reported cases have climbed to about 7,000, with nearly 250 deaths. His stance has led lawmakers and the head of Brazil’s Supreme Court to essentially suggest that the public ignore his advice, and a movement calling for his impeachment is gaining support.
In Russia, President Vladimir V. Putin said the situation was under control and visited a coronavirus hospital on the outskirts of Moscow, where he shook hands with a doctor who later tested positive. On Wednesday, Mr. Putin’s spokesman said the president now preferred to work remotely from his country residence.
But an arc of former Soviet countries around Russia, including several in Central Asia — sometimes called the mustache belt, for the large numbers of mustachioed men — have stood out in denying the severity of the global crisis.
In Turkmenistan, state television viewers have mostly been spared the grim news of the pandemic. Only on March 25, days after the country closed its borders and the police started taking the temperatures of people arriving in the capital, did the state news media first report on the containment measures, according to Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a group that monitors the Turkmen news media.
The country’s president, Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov, had gone on television earlier in the month to recommend burning a medicinal herb, harmala, without saying why or mentioning the coronavirus.
“Our wise ancestors strictly followed tradition,” he said. “They burned harmala on important occasions, whether moving to a new home, a wedding and at certain times when infectious diseases arose.”
Radio Free Europe, which has journalists in the country, reported that Turkmenistan has tried to squelch even private conversations about the virus. Plainclothes police officers detain those who gossip about it in food lines, the news organization said. Despite sharing a border with Iran, which has reported more than 44,000 infections, Turkmenistan’s government says the country has not had a single case.
“To me it’s very short sighted,” Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said of the former Soviet leaders’ minimizing the epidemic. “If you say, ‘Well, we are an island in a stormy sea and that is because of me,’ then you’ve cloaked yourself in armor that doesn’t allow a single chink. If there is one chink, your credibility goes down.”
And they are not likely to be able to hold out long, he added. “Look around — they are surrounded by countries with multiple cases.”
The president of Tajikistan, Emomali Rohman, who has been in power since soon after the Soviet collapse in 1991, initially embraced precautionary measures like closing mosques but then reversed course, without public explanation.
The message, though, was clear: He would defy the virus. As with the region’s other long-serving potentates, stability has been a cornerstone of Mr. Rohman’s political image. He casts himself as a fatherly figure who brought normalcy after the mayhem of the Soviet breakup and an ensuing civil war.
His playbook for holding together a wobbly state has been to deny vulnerability, first to terrorist attacks, which have been misrepresented as opposition violence, and now to the pandemic. As late as March 22, long after most nations had begun strict social distancing, Mr. Rohman gathered about 12,000 students in a stadium for a celebration of the Persian new year, Nowruz.
“We should be thankful we live in an atmosphere of freedom, in an independent, prosperous country and can celebrate Nowruz in peace and stability,” he told the crowd. He suggested that Tajiks’ good habits of cleanliness would help.
“Cleanliness, good housekeeping and observing the rules of hygiene are fundamental traits of our nation,” Mr. Rohman said. He wrapped up the party by saying: “I pray to God that the most difficult days for Tajikistan will be like these times now. Good job, all of you. Be happy.”
Two students who took part in the festival said in telephone interviews that university deans had threatened them with expulsion if they tried to skip the party to avoid infection.
“We had to attend the marches. They told us we would otherwise pay with expulsion,” said one woman studying at the State Art University, who asked that she not be named to avoid retribution by state security.
“I come from a mountain village,” the woman said. “I read about the risks of coronavirus, about how quickly it spreads, but I am from a poor family and I did not want to risk” being expelled.
In a statement, the Tajik health ministry said the country had no cases of coronavirus because it had closed its borders early and quarantined all travelers.
In Belarus, President Aleksandr Lukashenko demonstrably visited a plasterboard factory that kept humming even though its product has no immediate use in countering the pandemic. Organizers packed workers into a small room, although they kept them a good six feet or so from the president.
“This psychosis has crippled national economies almost everywhere in the world,” he said, indicating that he would resist distancing strategies. In mid-March, he said Belarusians would work in the fields, on tractors, through the pandemic.
“The tractor will heal everyone,” he said. “The fields heal everyone.”
Belarus has reported about 150 cases but no deaths. Mr. Lukashenko has ordered the secret police to investigate anybody falsely reporting a death from coronavirus.
Sergei Satsuk, an independent blogger, wrote that “this order, and the background of official stability in Belarus, makes it clear: It’s time to panic.”