ISCI is a cross-disciplinary research centre working to further our understanding of state crime: organisational deviance violating human rights

Kazakhstan / Catherine Coughlan

While an unprecedented global epidemic requires a substantive policy response, human rights and human rights restriction remain critical issues in need of careful consideration. The current pandemic justifies some policies, dependent on their temporality, harshness, and implementation strategy, the infringement of rights, civil, political, economic and social, is undeniable in Kazakhstan.

With the questionable arrest of activists critical of the Kazakh government, the authorities appear to be instrumentalising coronavirus as a means to ‘muzzle’ critics.

With the questionable arrest of activists critical of the Kazakh government, the authorities appear to be instrumentalising coronavirus as a means to ‘muzzle’ critics. Furthermore, lack of price regulation on certain products, difficult-to-access government loans, and restrictive travel bans have further contributed to breaches of rights.

Most distressingly, however, is the serious violation of rights of residents locked down in buildings with suspected COVID-19 cases, with little information divulged by the government. To move forward, Kazakhstan must be transparent in its policies and prevent further infringements.


Kazakhstan and its health system

Kazakhstan is a Central Asian republic that defines itself as democracy. This is debatable given it is in effect a one party system, monopolised by Nur Otan party which is led by the current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The largest land-locked country in the world, Kazakhstan has a population of 18 million and is divided into 14 oblasts, or regions. It has a GDP per capita of $9,812, mostly attributable to its rich mineral and oil resources, which renders it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

The current health system is a single-payer system. This system emerged following several reforms that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, and this, paired with the Alma Ata declaration (held in Kazakhstan in 1978), led to an increased investment in the Kazakh primary health care sector. Despite these reforms, the Kazakh health system has been criticised for its large percentage of out-of-pocket payments and its “poorly institutionalised” patient rights, especially in regards to stigma faced by people with HIV/AIDS.

In terms of health expenditure, Kazakhstan spends $279.65 per capita, or 3.13% of its GDP. The country has 3.25 doctors, 8.49 nurses and midwives, and 6.7 hospital beds per 1,000 people. These numbers vary substantially among the oblasts, with rural areas suffering from shortages of healthcare workers.

Due to the sparseness of the population, Kazakhstan has seen lower transmission rates of the coronavirus compared to more densely populated countries. As of 3 May, Kazakhstan has reported 4,028 cases of COVID-19, and 27 deaths, with 1134 recoveries. The number of ventilators has remained unreported, though on 9 April, China was reported to have provided two ventilators, as well as 2000 personal protective equipment suits to Kazakh hospitals.


Civil and political rights

Lockdown restrictions in Kazakhstan began on 15 March,  with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declaring a state of emergency. This occurred against a backdrop where Kazakhstan in 2019-20 had experienced heightened levels of civil activism, protesting the authoritarian regime. Following the state of emergency schools, shopping centres, and areas of large public gatherings were closed. Travel restrictions prohibit entering and leaving the country (with some exceptions, such as diplomats and government invites). Originally planned to end 15 April, these restrictions were lengthened until the beginning of May.

Reports from civil rights activists in Kazakhstan indicate the government has put “pressure” on civil society to “silence” any dissent. Several activists have been detained after protesting the ways in which Kazakhstan has implemented its coronavirus transmission prevention methods, such as increased police presence, where police have stopped people on the streets to ask the reasoning behind their trips outside.

Rights activists have further claimed that police have used the lockdown measures as a way of justifying the arrest of certain activists in an effort to “muzzle” them. As of 20 April, three well-known activists, Alnur Ilyashev, Arman Shuraev, and Ulan Shamshet have all been arrested for “violating coronavirus restrictions”. Their peers have stated this is due to the fact they have all openly opposed the government previously, and were thought of as protest leaders.

As of 16 April Human Rights Watch has documented over 5000 arrests over coronavirus restriction violations, with the “legitimacy of these arrests not clear”. Furthermore, a report has stated doctors in Kazakhstan have been charged with spreading false information on coronavirus, after expressing concern over shortages of personal protective equipment in hospitals. This again shows how the government has potentially overreached and used the virus as a means of silencing critics.

Most worryingly, a Kazakh news site reports that a building in the city of Karaganda has been bolted shut to prevent the spread of a suspected COVID-19 case, with no means for fire escape.

Most worryingly, a Kazakh news site reports that a building in the city of Karaganda has been bolted shut to prevent the spread of a suspected COVID-19 case, with no means for fire escape (this is an especially symbolic issue, after the death of five sisters in a fire helped trigger the 2019-20 protests). Regional authorities were evasive when questioned how treatment was reaching building residents, and when the building would be unlocked.


Economic and social rights

Since the pandemic outbreak unemployment has increased drastically. The state oil company (oil being Kazakhstan’s main export) reports that they have laid off 34 percent of staff. In an effort to mitigate the effects of coronavirus on the most vulnerable, Kazakhstan has implemented a suspension on paying back loans, and allowed for “socially vulnerable” groups to receive free groceries.

Kazakhstan’s main counter to the coronavirus’ economic effects is a $10 billion package to boost its economy. This is to be distributed amongst small businesses as well as those who have lost jobs, with approximately $95 given to each unemployed citizen. However, in order to access this money, people must surpass “bureaucratic hurdles”, resulting in long lines at banks.

Finally, though the government has stated they are monitoring the retail price of products to prevent panic-buying in Kazakhstan, a report has shown ingredients for homemade treatments, such as ginger and lemon, have increased in price by up to “tenfold, depending on the outlet”.

Though these items may not be deemed essential, the government’s failure to prevent gouging has built distrust and does not bode well for the future, if other products become in short supply due to demand. Further, the lack of reprimand on these outlets for increasing prices has infringed on economic rights of food and has further deepened inequalities.

Catherine Coughlan is a final year Global Health student with an interest in human rights and international relations.