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As Kazakhstan's COVID-19 Infections Rise, The City Of Almaty Struggles To Bury Its Dead

Removal of a coffin from an Almaty morgue on July 8, 2020
Removal of a coffin from an Almaty morgue on July 8, 2020

They gather each morning in loose clusters outside a grayish concrete morgue and wait hours, often until nearly midnight, to collect the bodies of their loved ones.

As the rate of COVID-19 infections steadily increases in Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s most populated country, observing even the traditional rite of a funeral can prove a challenge for ordinary residents of Almaty, a city of some 1.8 million.

“There’re now really a lot of people. Already for two weeks,” commented an Almaty morgue guard who declined to speak on camera. Whereas earlier, this morgue finished its work by 5 p.m., now the wait to claim corpses can last until 11 p.m., he added.

Social videos from the site show a packed parking lot and a crowd of people waiting for names to be called out.

At 1,376 new infections on July 8, Kazakhstan’s official rate of increase in COVID-19 infections ranks among the fastest in the world. Overall, the country this year has registered 53,021 cumulative coronavirus cases, the highest rate in Central Asia by a minimum factor of nearly five.

Health Minister Aleksei Tsoi has conceded that the real number could well be higher.

Within Kazakhstan, Almaty, the country’s largest urban area and its business hub, has the second highest number of official coronavirus cases (6,678) after the Caspian Sea region of Atyrau, the center of Kazakhstan’s energy sector.

To try and clamp down on the virus, Kazakhstan on July 5 became the first country to reintroduce a lockdown – infection rates have increased sevenfold since the country lifted the restrictions in mid-May, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has estimated.

The restrictions, which close all facilities except for grocery stores, pharmacies, outdoor markets and sidewalk cafes, will last for 14 days, and come with steep fines for violations: the equivalent of $203 for an individual to $10,805 for a large business.

Prolonging these measures is not out of the question, Health Minister Tsoi, who has proposed a four-week lockdown, noted on July 9. A decision will be taken next week, he told the Khabar 24 news site.

In a televised address on July 8, Toqaev blamed the rise in COVID-19 infections on “systemic mistakes” by a recently dismissed health minister and the population’s supposed failure to observe sanitary measures against the pandemic. Kazakhstan’s COVID-19 situation is “complicated,” but “not much worse” than in other countries, he asserted.

Nonetheless, Toqaev declared July 13 a national day of mourning for the country’s 264 official coronavirus victims.

But in Almaty, individuals waiting in line at the morgue visited by Current Time said that delays getting death certificates mean that, often, funerals cannot occur for several days – a delay not in keeping with the Islamic practice of burying a body as soon as possible after the person’s death.

The Almaty city government maintains that bodies are handed over to relatives within 12 hours. It has blamed any delay not on Kazakhstan’s spike in COVID-19 cases, but on the distraction of each deceased person’s relative coming with two to 10 companions to collect the death certificates.

“[A]dditional time” is also needed for determining the cause of death, Almaty’s health department stated.

Kazakhstan’s 628 deaths this year from pneumonia officially outstrip those from COVID-19, but, in many cases, COVID-19 is listed as an accompanying factor.

Last week, the gap further widened: 415 deaths from pneumonia, compared with 76 from the coronavirus, according to official data, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reported. Amidst an uptick in hospitalizations for pneumonia, the qualifier “probable case of a coronavirus infection” has been added to patients’ diagnoses.

With clinics full, ambulances constantly busy, and pharmacies running low on medication, Kazakhstan’s Health Ministry now has its work cut out to stabilize the situation, commented Kazakh pediatrician-neuropathologist Kairgali Koneyev.

Ordinary Kazakhs regularly complain that they cannot be admitted to hospitals and that coronavirus tests are in short supply.

Even finding someone to dig a grave can be a challenge.

Three hours to the north of Almaty, in the city of Taldykorgan, locals are now burying seven to eight people per day -- up to four times as many as previously -- in two of the city’s nearby cemeteries, said Sandugash Duysenova, а journalist and activist who promotes care of cemeteries.

“The scariest thing is that there are no ‘kopachi’ [gravediggers]. [The gravediggers] are a free market. They take up to 100,000” tenge (about $243) per grave, up to roughly three times their earlier rate, Duysenova said.

Families have no choice but to agree, though that price amounts to over half of the average monthly wage in Kazakhstan.

Speaking of the general situation, physician Koneyev claimed that people’s patience “is stretched to the limit.”

“The people are indignant that Kazakhstan’s authorities can’t cope with this pandemic,” he commented on July 6.

To respond, Toqaev has stated that the government will increase the number of hospital beds, consider importing medicine not certified for use in Kazakhstan, and take other undefined measures for the fight against COVID-19.

In Almaty, officials plan to set up a COVID-19 hospital in the Khalyk Arena sports stadium.
As of late June, the city’s hospitals were already 95-percent full.

All public transportation in the city was shut down for a day on July 6 for disinfection. Schedule restrictions have also been introduced.

Opinions in Almaty about the quarantine’s ability to slow the infection appeared split this week, however. One man cited Kazakhs’ irrepressible love of celebrating weddings; a woman who gave her name as Dasha noted the lack of attention to wearing face masks in public.

To curb the virus’ spread, both the general population and the government need to commit themselves equally, Dasha added.

If both sides “listened to each other, cared not only about themselves, but also about surrounding people, then this could really work,” she said.