Turkmenistan’s bus drivers don masks for WHO virus visit

Bus drivers in Turkmenistan sported masks for the first time Monday, as a long-delayed World Health Organization delegation arrived in the tightly controlled country that claims to be coronavirus-free.

The WHO had first attempted to visit the isolated ex-Soviet country in the spring, but the 10-day mission was held up over travel logistics, Turkmenistan’s foreign ministry said.

A spokesman for Turkmenistan’s foreign ministry told AFP on Monday that the WHO delegation had arrived for a mission expected to examine all aspects of the country’s response to the pandemic.

Despite reports in foreign media of pneumonia cases emerging in the country, the government has insisted the isolated gas-rich state is virus-free.  

Police have reportedly discouraged citizens from wearing masks and facial protection has been absent from mass government events held in recent months, some of which were attended by thousands of people. 

One bus driver, a 31-year-old man who only gave his first name, Sapar, said in the capital Ashgabat on Monday that the order to wear masks had come down from the health ministry. 

“They were given to us for free before we set off. We have to wear them for the whole shift,” he told AFP. 

The driver said he approved of the change. 

“In rush hour there are lots of people on the bus. They cough and sneeze. It is dangerous for everyone,” added Sapar. 

“We need to force passengers to wear a mask, too.”

Akhmet, a state taxi driver, said that he and his colleagues had also been instructed to wear masks to work. 

“We have to wear them when inside the cars, regardless of whether there is a passenger there,” he said.

Last month the foreign ministry dismissed as “fake news” a US embassy health alert warning Americans over potential coronavirus cases in the country. 

The embassy said it had “received reports of local citizens with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 undergoing COVID-19 testing and being placed in quarantine in infectious diseases hospitals for up to 14 days.”

In June, the WHO began recommending masks for public transport and other situations where physical distancing is impossible.

Tajikistan, another secretive country in Central Asia that welcomed a WHO mission, announced its first coronavirus cases on April 30 —  the day before the delegation arrived.