The official arrival of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Kazakhstan was declared on March 13 with three confirmed infections, while in Turkmenistan—still officially coronavirus-free—the government tightened foreign exchange controls in the face of economic damage expected to be caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Central Asia has by official accounts so far remained relatively untouched by COVID-19 despite its proximity to virus epicentre China and severely impacted Iran, but things have started to change, especially economically.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev ordered his government on March 13 to allocate Kazakhstani tenge (KZT) 300bn ($740mn) towards measures to boost employment through infrastructure maintenance projects, his office said.
At a meeting called to discuss how to counter the coronavirus outbreak, Tokayev also instructed the cabinet to provide fiscal support to companies. The backing will supposedly allow them to offer paid leave to employees forced to stay at home with children—Kazakhstan has shut down its schools for three weeks as it bids to prevent a substantial COVID-19 outbreak.
Trio infected ‘arrived from Germany and Italy’
Detailing two of the three declared infections, Health minister Yelzhan Birtenov said two Kazakh citizens who arrived in commercial capital Almaty from Germany this week had been found to have the virus, but were asymptomatic. One was on a flight with 72 other people, all of whom have been placed under quarantine. The second person arrived on a flight with 12 others. These other passengers were also quarantined, Birtenov said.
A third Kazakh citizen was said by health ministry officials to be a woman who arrived in capital Nur-Sultan from Milan via Moscow on March 12. They added that a fourth Kazakh citizen—the father of a diplomat posted to Germany—was in the care of a German hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
Kazakhstan’s fellow Central Asian nations Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are yet to report any coronavirus cases.
However, the pandemic may well prove a body blow for Turkmenistan, which for the past few years has been in a bitter economic crisis, the scale of which is difficult to determine due to the lack of transparent information that gets out of the remote, tightly controlled country.
The side-effects of the slowdown in China caused by the pandemic could prove debilitating for isolated and gas-export dependent Turkmenistan. Reuters reported that a central bank document seen on March 13 showed that Ashgabat has reined in foreign exchange controls. The move came after China, the main buyer of Turkmen natural gas, slashed gas imports and global energy prices collapsed after Russia and OPEC failed to agree deeper oil production cuts in response to a demand slump caused by the coronavirus impact around the world.
The document reportedly showed Turkmenistan cutting to $300 per month from $500 the amount of foreign currency that citizens are allowed to purchase by having it deposited onto their bank cards. The limit on outgoing wire transfers has purportedly been cut to $200 per month from $300.
The central bank has kept the Turkmen manat exchange rate fixed since early 2015. Gas exports to China are Turkmenistan's primary source of hard currency. PetroChina, which buys both Turkmen and Kazakh gas, has suspended some purchases because a seasonal plunge in demand has combined with the coronavirus outbreak effect on consumption.