Tension and wariness are spreading throughout Chinese closest neighbourhood as Central Asia and Russia are taking measures to prevent the spread of the new Wuhan coronavirus, recently renamed Covid-19. While Russia announced the decision to close the border with China at the end of January, none of the Central Asian republics explicitly followed the example. However, several measures have been taken to respond to the rising danger of transmission ranging from cancellation of transports, roadblocks or quarantine checkpoints. At the same time, most borders were already closed for the Chinese New Year celebrations and they could not reopen for a while.
Kazakhstan shares the largest border with China with almost 1,800 km touching the territory of the Chinese autonomous Xinjiang region. News coming from the Chinese Hubei region have disseminated paranoia among Kazakh citizens. Authorities are asking citizens to avoid spreading fake news on cases of coronavirus in the country. TengriNews reports that ambulance drivers were arrested in Kapshagai for “circulating rumours of coronavirus”. The government still declares that no Kazakh citizen has been affected by the virus, even if 54 suspected cases have been hospitalised. Only 33 of these patients were still hospitalised by the first week of February. All patients were confirmed negative to the Coronavirus. On 26 January, Prime Minister Askar Mamin held a government meeting that implemented a list of measures to mitigate the risks of the virus spreading in the country. Border control was strengthened ensuring that people travelling from China pass through medical control. 72-hour visa free stay in Kazakhstan for Chinese citizens has been revoked and buses and trains have already been suspended between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang. From 3 February all flights have been blocked between the two countries. Kazpost has also suspended postal services between Kazakhstan, China and several South-East Asian countries, due to infection.
The Kyrgyz border was supposed to be opened on 31 January after the celebrations of Chinese New Year. However, as reported by Kabar, the border remains closed longer allegedly due to the proximity of the weekend weekly closure. Borders and airports have been heavily controlled since the first news on the virus from China and thermal imagers and sanitary stations were installed at every checkpoint and air, road and rail connections with China have been cut since 23 January. The President of the country, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, organised a meeting on 27 January and recommended that the government set up preventive measures. A report of the Ministry of Health reports that the export is banned for any medical equipment needed for a possible virus outbreak, masks included.
The main debate in Tajikistan is around the import of Chinese goods to the country. China is one of Tajikistan’s major trading partners with an estimate of more than 600 million US dollars imports from the PRC and around 50 million dollars exports. Although the direct import of Chinese goods has been immediately blocked after the outbreak of the Wuhan virus, it is unclear whether products are still being imported through third countries. The head of the country’s food security committee declared that authorities are blocking any attempt to deliver Chinese goods and that all crossing points along the border are heavily controlled. Guards have already blocked an attempt of importing Chinese fruits into the country from Afghanistan. On the same line of other Central Asian countries, Tajik borders were closed for the Lunar New Year and flights are temporarily suspended.
Thousands of Central Asian students live in China and among them, 98 Kazakhs, 46 Tajik, 14 Kyrgyz were in Wuhan. Kazakhstan has already repatriated the majority of Kazakh students on 2 February (around 80), together with other 24 nationals from EAEU countries (18 citizens of Kyrgyzstan, 5 of Belarus and 1 of Armenia). 217 other Kazakh national were flown home in a second wave on 11 February, while Tajikistan evacuated 54 of its nationals from Wuhan. Tajik students in other Chinese cities had organised fundraising to allow their compatriots in Hubei to buy protective masks to be able to walk around the city.
The economic impact of the outbreak cannot yet be calculated, but the 2003 SARS epidemic cost the global economy around $40 billion. This will be particularly strong in countries whose economy depends heavily on trade with China. Central Asia is one of the best examples of the economic relevance of the disease that threatens Chinese mobility along the whole Belt and Road. As RFE/RL reports China has confirmed more than 44,600 cases in the country, while the number of countries outside China witnessing cases grows every day. More than 100 cases of coronavirus have been diagnosed in Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, France, United States, Germany, Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Canada, Italy, United Kingdom, Cambodia, Finland, Sweden, India, Nepal, Philippines, Russia, Spain, Belgium and Sri Lanka.