Saglyk sent an email to Dr. Katherine Smallwood, WHO/Europe’s Senior Emergency Officer and mission lead to Turkmenistan on July 9, 2020. The mission has arrived to Turkmenistan on July 7, 2020. We are sharing our email communication with WHO in full.
Jul 9, 2020,
To: WHO Turkmenistan, WHO Europe, UN Turkmenistan, UN HQ, USAID, the World Bank, the US Embassy in Turkmenistan, the Global Fund, WHO Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
To: Dr. Katherine Smallwood, WHO/Europe’s Senior Emergency Officer and mission lead to Turkmenistan.
Dear Dr. Smallwood,
Saglyk.org has been the single source of science-based information in the Turkmen language on COVID over the last 5 months. We have been using WHO materials on COVID to do WHO's work in Turkmenistan. It is unfortunate that Ms. Karwowska, Head of WHO Ashgabat office and her colleagues would not even acknowledge our existence. We sent them letters, shared a lot of resources and information and offered our help. We are disturbed by her silence. We feel disrespected by the fact that WHO and UN did not manage to engage with us in any capacity to learn about our understanding of issues and see if we could contribute to COVID preparedness and our country's response. But today we are not writing to talk about WHO's performance in Turkmenistan.
We are writing to you to tell you about the increased flow of reports over the last week and questions we keep receiving from the public concerning their health and COVID. Our readers, our families, and our friends are reporting COVID-like symptoms in Turkmenistan. They are asking us whether there is COVID in Turkmenistan. They are asking us where they can be tested. People are self-treating the symptoms by overusing antibiotics and drugs that are not supposed to be used as prevention or treatment. Patients diagnosed with pneumonia check out of the hospitals not fully treated due to poor medical services and decrepit medical facilities. There is no separation between patients with COVID-like symptoms and other patients. And there is very little testing for COVID in hospitals. Doctors are not familiar with any safety and COVID treatment protocols. They are not allowed to take time off when they get sick. They have to buy their own personal protective equipment.
Our continued and unsuccessful attempts to engage both with the Ministry of Health, WHO and the UN over the last 5 months is proving to us that the government is not ready operationally to detect, investigate, and report COVID cases and launch an informed response. As you know preparedness makes a difference. Over the last 5 months to our inquiries concerning public communication, prevention campaigns, diagnostics and testing we keep hearing from your colleagues that "there are no confirmed COVID cases in Turkmenistan". We have looked for and we have not found any publicly available information on protocols, surveillance systems to diagnose and track COVID, lab testing and infection control measures in the country. We have reasons to believe that all the COVID preparedness that WHO is talking about in the media is theoretical in nature, not operational and the planning is, at best, only on paper.
The public does not understand the virus and has not been informed by the Ministry about basic preventive measures: social distancing, masks, and self-isolation. In the absence of any public messaging over the last 5 months, the government is now running misleading, inaccurate public messaging on the use of masks, which the Ministry explains is to protect oneself from environmental "air pollution" in the country. This campaign started with the arrival of your mission. The fact that the WHO mission was supposed to arrive in April and not in July, this total mismanagement of time we had to prepare, your offices' silence and complacency and now this obscure messaging by the Ministry really hurts the public. The risk of rapid COVID-19 spread is very real in Turkmenistan in the absence of basic public messaging based on science and facts.
How many СOVID-19 infected people do WHO need to have to confirm that there is COVID-19 in the country?
We are appealing to you, who are a medical professional and scientist. Please don't give us vague, politicized statements. The public in Turkmenistan deserve an intelligent, science-based explanation, a COVID preparedness and response plan, and open and consistent communication.
We are appealing to you to stop the catastrophe and prevent loss of human life in Turkmenistan by not waiting further and making an immediate statement that COVID is indeed in the country and that WHO will work transparently with the government and civil society to transparently and effectively address this health emergency.
Thank you and we look forward to a prompt response.
The Saglyk Team
July 10, 2020
We have received your email and are contacting our colleagues in the region. We’ll get back to you soon.
World Health Organization
July 10, 2020
Thank you for letting us know and for your help in getting this message through. You are the only person out of the list who confirmed it. If we do not get a prompt response we will be obliged to share this letter with our contacts in the media and our readers.
July 11, 2020
If we do not get a prompt response we will be obliged to share this letter with our contacts in the media and our readers. Your silence fuels online misinformation and confusion among public. There are increased reports of people getting sick with pneumonia. They are writing to us looking for information. This is urgent now. You must message the public in one message: masks, social distancing and washing hands to prevent further spread of COVID in Turkmenistan.
We are waiting for your response.
July 11, 2020
WHO is concerned with the cases of pneumonia in Turkmenistan. As you are probably already aware, a WHO mission is currently in Turkmenistan. A statement on the mission has been published on our website, and further details of the mission’s findings will be communicated when the mission is complete.
Also, as with all infectious diseases, WHO advises to activate all measures including testing, isolation of cases, contact tracing, quarantine, quality hospital care for those who need it, and public health and social measures as if it were COVID-19.
WHO Regional Office for Europe
July 11, 2020
We are asking you to make a public statement that "WHO is concerned with the cases of pneumonia in Turkmenistan" (which you state in your previous email), and that the government should act "as if it were COVID-19". There has not been any substantive communication between the WHO mission and the Turkmen public since July 7. Given how WHO Ashgabat has been communicating with the public over the last 25 years we are skeptical that anything meaningful will be communicated to the public. The public is suffering and feels lost. No public messaging based on science is taking place in Turkmenistan other than occasional mask use, no social distancing, no self-isolation, no COVID mythbusting. Please provide the details of the government's and WHO's work, not political pronouncements. Please provide detailed information on how all the measures are activated. The public has turned to us to provide guidance. This back and forth exchange and play of words is politicizing the issue further, which is a life and death issue for us now.
July 12, 2020
Dear Jahan, I am following up to your message below.
WHO has deployed to Turkmenistan with the clear objective of working with national authorities to protect people from COVID-19.
Our mandate is to advise on needed measures at the right level: it is important having the time and the opportunity to assess COVID-19 risks people and provide our recommendations accordingly. This is why we will be able to communicate our conclusions at the end of the mission.
We will do everything in our remit to help, and we trust in the support of the entire society to our efforts.
Programme Manager External Relations
Health Emergencies & Communicable Diseases
July 13, 2020
Would you please confirm that this email reached Dr.Smallwood and her team? We are not hearing eaсh other. There is very little or no trust and communication between the government and the public. To earn that trust WHO should show the effort of engaging with the public in the language they speak. Our close monitoring and content development (we are the single source of COVID-19 information in the Turkmen language) of the last 5 months shows us that WHO Ashgabat is not responsive and has done nothing to prepare. It would be unrealistic to think that one mission would change long standing issues in the management of the healthcare sector and WHO's work in Turkmenistan. You are giving me generic answers as a media person while we receive questions from fearful, disoriented and panicking public.
This is our attempts at communicating thus far:
↪ 27 February − a letter to the ministry of Health, no response.
↪ 11 May, letter to the Minister, WHO, UN, Dr. Kluge − see attached, no response.
↪ Suggestions how to make a COVID page out of a poorly designed ministry page, no response.
↪ Here is what we have put together as a citizen group in the absence of any interest, cooperation, or guidance from WHO Ashgabat or the Ministry of Health. WHO has not produced any information in the Turkmen language on COVID.
Do you have to do this to get essential COVID information as the public in the country you are from or live currently?
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