Comment: The coronavirus threatens far more than health systems in Central Asia

— The spread of the deadly coronavirus from China into Central Asia is a terrifying prospect for economic, social and political reasons, writes James Kilner.

JAN. 30 (The Bulletin) — The spectre of the coronavirus spreading from China is a terrifying one seen from Central Asia. It is the economic and social game-changer that governments dread.

For the past decade, Chinese investment and cheap loans have powered Central Asian economies. Beijing’s so-called Belt and Road programme, essentially investment in an East-West trade route, has wholly taken in Central Asia and, where Russia and Russians used to dominate, now China and the Chinese do.

Not totally, the ingrained Soviet social mores and Russian language are too deep to shift, but China has made the difference. Infrastructure that had barely seen a lick of paint, let alone an engineer, since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, has been overhauled by China; government buildings and parliaments have been modernised by China; thousands of jobs have been created by China.

There have been growing pains as locals get frustrated, feeling that the better jobs go to Chinese workers and the better contracts to Chinese workers, but on the whole, governments in Central Asia have been happy to cede economic power to China in exchange for investment. So much so, some critics have pointed out, that these governments have been happy to ignore alleged abuses in western China of Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz.

China’s internment policy in its Xinjiang province has bred ill feelings towards Chinese in Central Asia. There have been some anti-Chinese demonstrations but not enough to tip the balance against China.

Now, though, comes the coronavirus.

Underfunded healthcare systems in China are nervously watching China and hoping that they don’t suffer an outbreak of the deadly virus.

Kazakhstan has closed its borders with China but China’s borders with other Central Asian countries remain open and with their porous nature it may only be a matter of time before an outbreak is confirmed.

And this will be a real test of healthcare systems. When Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organisation director-general, said that he was more worried about a country with a weak healthcare system having to deal with the outbreak of the coronavirus, rather than China itself, he may well have had Central Asia in his mind.

But even if the spread is limited, the damage may already have been done. Anti-China sentiment is likely to strengthen and closing borders will hit economies in the region.


— This comment story was first published in issue 435 of the Central Asia & South Caucasus Bulletin

— James Kilner is the editor of the Central Asia & South Caucasus Bulletin

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