Abdurahmon Rahmonov recalls being admitted to Dushanbe’s Shifobakhsh Hospital in the early summer with high fever, breathing difficulties, and other symptoms attributed to COVID-19.
It was the apparent height of the epidemic in Tajikistan, where, after initially denying the existence of any coronavirus infections in the country, authorities had pledged that all state-run medical facilities would provide free medical treatment for COVID-19 patients.
However, Rahmonov — like many others — soon discovered that official promises of free medical care were empty promises.
“The moment I reached the hospital, I was given a list of medications and was told I must pay for them. I saw that other patients were paying, too, for the medications that were supposed to be free,” Rahmonov, 55, told RFE/RL.
“When we complained, the doctors told us that ‘free medical treatment’ promised by the government only covers the fee for use of the hospital bed and the services of the medics.”
Rahmonov said he paid the equivalent of around $500 in medical bills at the beginning of his eight-day hospital stay. It’s a significant sum in Central Asia’s most impoverished country, where the average salary is about $150 a month.
RFE/RL correspondents in Tajikistan spoke to dozens of former COVID-19 patients or family members of such patients in the capital, Dushanbe, and other cities and villages. Nearly all of them claimed to have been billed for “everything.”
The only exception, they said, was that hospitals hadn’t charged them the “bed fees” that normally run about $50 to $70 per stay in state-run facilities in most cities.
Most of those who spoke to RFE/RL said they were made to pay between $430 and $600, while at least one person in the capital said he was charged about $1,000 for his COVID-19 treatment.
“I can say without any doubt that since I was appointed health minister on May 5, which was the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in Tajikistan, that the government has been providing completely free medical treatment for [COVID-19] patients,” Health Minister Jamoliddin Abdullozoda told reporters on February 12.
“Heads of hospitals can confirm this,” Abdullozoda added.
The minister’s comments prompted angry reactions on social media, where many Tajik users accused the him of “lying” and being out of touch with reality.
“Don’t ask the heads of hospitals. Ask the people if the treatment has been free or not free,” wrote Facebook user Azamat Sattorov.
“There is not one person in any part of our country who says they received free medical treatment. Whoever you ask, they’ll tell you they had to pay 5,000 to 7,000 somoni” — between $434 and $615 — “for COVID-19 treatment. The minister is telling an outright lie,” wrote Khurshed Saidov.
The minister said Tajikistan has adequate supplies of the same medicines and equipment that “other countries, like Russia” use to treat the disease.
“Currently, we have a 103 million somoni worth of supplies of such medicines at our disposal,” he told reporters, a figure that corresponds to around $9 million.
The assurance on the abundance of supplies flies in the face of public complaints at the prices of certain medications rising unexpectedly since May.
In the village of Navgilem, in the northern Isfara district, a 57-year-old housewife told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that her family had to spend all its savings on medications when her husband was hospitalized with COVID-19 in September.
She said doctors in Isfara gave her a long list of medicines that cost “several thousand somonis.”
Her 60-year-old husband did not survive.
“If the price of some medications was 50 somoni per pack, it rose to up to 350 during the pandemic,” said a Dushanbe resident who sought treatment “for a mild form” of COVID-19. The man didn’t specify which medications he was referring to.
What Happened To Foreign Aid?
Many Tajiks have been left to wonder what happened to the foreign aid that the Tajik government has received to help it cope with the pandemic.
Tajikistan has received significant amounts of financial and humanitarian aid from 18 countries and 16 international and regional organizations since the global outbreak began. Such aid included medical supplies and foodstuffs intended to help Tajikistan’s 9.5 million people withstand the coronavirus and its impact.
Pledges of financial aid began in early April while the government was still maintaining there were no coronavirus infections in Tajikistan, despite a spike of suspicious “pneumonia” cases all over the country. Dushanbe finally reported its “first” coronavirus infections on April 30.
The international aid has included $190 million allocated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), $53 million from the European Union, and $11.3 million from the World Bank.
Tajik officials have so far reported a total of 13,308 infections and 90 deaths, remarkably low numbers even in a region that has fared better than many feared.
Health Minister Abdullozoda said Tajikistan hasn’t recorded any new infections since December 31.
The public appears skeptical of official figures and accusations persist that the government is underreporting COVID-19 numbers.
Even at the apparent peak of the pandemic, when hospitals were running out of beds and the number of patients with COVID-19 symptoms was growing, authorities reported only a small number of infections and even fewer coronavirus-related deaths.
Many patients with COVID-19 symptoms were routinely given “pneumonia” diagnoses by doctors.
Independent media reported that the bodies of many “pneumonia” patients were taken to cemeteries in ambulances by medics in hazmat suits. In many cases, relatives were told to keep a safe distance while the bodies — wrapped in plastic — were buried by ambulance crews.