As the novel coronavirus (now classified as COVID-19) spreads around the world, Central Asia sits as a lonely region adjacent to the People’s Republic of China—the epicenter of the outbreak—with no known confirmed cases. As of early March, no officially registered instances of the virus have occurred there. This is a curious development, given the proximity of the region to the epicenter and countries’ intense relations with China through busy trading, tourist, and transit routes. Positively, this may indeed signal the region’s ability to stay free of the virus. The vast and sparsely populated nature of the area may serve as a damper to the disease highly dependent on communicable spread. A more likely and unsettling scenario, however, is the diminished capacity of local authorities to detect the virus effectively, or, as is often the case with non-transparent regimes, unwillingness to release the genuine data on the matter.
Central Asia is home to some of the poorest nations in the world. Put simply, it is hard to spot something if you do not have the resources to look for it. As we learn from experiences in wealthier countries with larger and more capable health care systems, detecting the virus is not a frivolous effort. Testing alone is an expensive proposition as demonstrated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s early struggle to scale the process to meet national demand. For less resourceful governments, therefore, the issue is even more aggravated. This reminds us of added challenges faced by developing nations in preparing for and fighting the disease.
In Central Asia, the issue is further compounded by a set of subtle, but no less strenuous, non-medical ramifications of the effort to combat COVID-19. These secondary effects, although initiated by authorities as precautionary measures, reach far beyond the immediate health concerns and create difficulties for citizens in ways that have little or no medical implications. The latest developments in the Kyrgyz Republic serve as a good example of these processes. Government decisions there have seemingly overshadowed the original (health) concerns and instead generated negative externalities in the form of bureaucratic hassles, reduced public spending, and increased opportunities for embezzlement.
The administrative-bureaucratic barriers created as part of the fight against the virus—although implemented as preventative—have doubtful benefits, with adverse implications. Case in point, the preventative measure recently introduced in the Kyrgyz Republic that disallows the use of national ID-cards (the primary form of identification there, equivalent of a national passport) to cross the country’s international borders. Limited medical sensibility notwithstanding, the decision has added onerous costs to already arduous border-crossings, particularly to those dependent on the practice for their daily lives (trade, migrant labor, relatives, and other forms of trans-border activity are essential for many in the region). If the purpose was to restrict cross-border movement, then the effect could have been reached with far less disruptive actions and greater public safety and convenience in mind. Absent a clear justification, however, the decision only contributes to the sense of state overreach and mishandling.
Another issue of concern is the decrease in public spending stemming from anti-epidemic efforts. Citizens in developing nations are more dependent on state social programs. These tend to constitute the bigger share of national budgets. The prospect of an epidemic, however, has caused some countries to drastically reduce spending on such programs. Consequently, vulnerable populations heavily reliant on the programs are disproportionately affected. The cuts are precipitated either by lower government revenues due to the epidemic scare, diversion of state funds toward efforts to fight the disease, or both. For example, in the Kyrgyz Republic, the government has already announced cuts to the 2020 budget in order to free up funds toward prevention and mitigation of the pandemic. While no details have yet been released, the reductions are certain to hit the most vulnerable segments of the population.
The opportunity for embezzlement is another potential unintended (for the public that is) consequence of the fight to stem the epidemic. Central Asia, as many developing nations, tends to have higher levels of corruption. This condition gets exacerbated during times of exogenous shocks, such as natural disasters, inter-communal violence, and public health crises. One-off jolt events necessitate intense levels of contingency spending aimed at response and recovery. Often, however, these measures turn into increased opportunities for embezzlement. Again, in the Kyrgyz Republic, this happened in the aftermath of popular protests that swept aside sitting governments in 2005 and 2010. It also happened after national level, inter-communal violence in 2010. Each time, the calamitous events bring about massive infusion of public spending on rebuilding programs. Inevitably and invariably, it also brings opportunities for non-purposeful expenditures. For example, publicly funded, massive rebuilding projects following the inter-ethnic violence in 2010 were found to have been largely stolen. State auditors have uncovered, for instance, that millions appropriated for housing construction for victims were unaccounted for or grossly overspent. The current efforts to battle the looming health crisis, too, has all the hallmarks of following down the same path of past misappropriations.
The intensity and scope of the globally unfolding pandemic makes it a once-in-a-generation event. Much of its threat stems from direct health-related effects. For citizens in less developed nations, however, the phenomenon is associated with secondary, non-medical implications. Indeed, these secondary effects may pose more pressing challenges than the primary health concerns. As manifest in Central Asia, these range from added bureaucratic red tape and cuts in social expenditure to prospective misappropriation of public funds. Whichever form it takes, the brunt of the impact is ultimately felt by ordinary citizens. In an intriguing way, while Central Asians are told their region is free of the virus (whether credible or not), they already feel its pinch on the non-medical front. Gallingly yet, the effects may remain long after the epidemic has subsided.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.