Calm in the Eye of the Cyclone

14. Apr 2020

By Jakub Polansky, University of Sussex

In August 2019, I embarked on a year-long journey to Khorog, a town in the south-eastern part of Tajikistan, to research cross-border trade along the Afghan-Tajik border. As part of my fieldwork, I recently drove to the local bazaar to talk to the owners of Khorog’s second-hand clothes businesses. There, I met Ahmad, a middle-aged man from north-eastern Afghanistan, who makes his living by buying used clothing in wholesale from Europe and importing it through Karachi, Kandahar, Kabul and Ishkashim to Khorog. “Soon, soon” the trader tells me, as if he has no doubts, the middleman in Pakistan will call him to announce the re-opening of the borders, and thus the ability to resume business. Since then, a number of weeks has passed and the borders remain shut not only for human traffic but also for all trade and transit. Ahmad is just one of many entrepreneurs in Tajikistan who are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the therewith related slowdown of global trade.

Yet, in this situation, I am more concerned about my friends and colleagues in Afghanistan where food supplies are getting scarce. As thousands of containers of essential and perishable goods bound towards Afghanistan are stuck at the Pakistani border, flour prices in Kabul have been doubling overnight. Despite the efforts of local producers to satisfy the demand, Afghanistan heavily relies on wheat flour imports which constitute in nominal terms the single largest import item. However, given that virtually all of the imported flour comes from either Kazakhstan, Pakistan or Uzbekistan, and with all land borders closed, international flights suspended, and export quotas in place, it is no surprise that people are hoarding flour in expectation of shortages. In light of the political instability following the presidential elections, the lack of progress with the peace process, the ongoing attacks by insurgents, and the ill-equipped health system, the COVID-19 crisis poses a vital threat to the lives of each and every Afghan citizen.

Back in Tajikistan, which along with North Korea, Turkmenistan and Yemen are reportedly the only COVID-19 free countries in Asia, the situation appears to be less severe. An initial wave of fear a few days before Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebrated on the occasion of the spring equinox, led the population to stockpile flour and other durable food-products. This has come to my attention in three very particular ways. Firstly, social media platforms were full of pictures and videos of empty supermarket shelves in Dushanbe, long lines of customers waiting outside of them, and even the occasional brawl about who can have the privilege to buy the last bag of flour. Secondly, my local shop in Khorog ran out of Nutella which came at a horrible timing as I invited friends over for pancakes. And thirdly, one evening a student of mine came to see me in my office to ask me if I wanted to invest in his new business idea: he had ordered three tons of flour from a mill at a discount and wanted to sell them with great profit as the retail prices were rising.

Nowruz came and we returned to our normal lives. Stores and businesses are operating as usual, students at schools and universities are studying hard and preparing for their exams, and office workers are back to clocking in at 8am. Even I am able to largely continue with my fieldwork, if to a limited degree since the cross-border markets remain closed. Only the families and foreign ministry officials responsible for the few foreigners living in the country spend their energy worrying about the situation. The German Embassy even managed to coordinate a repatriation flight for all EU citizens from Dushanbe to Frankfurt. However, as for me, so for many other expatriates working in Tajikistan, it appears to be the wisest and safest choice to stay here, and so the flight has been postponed until further notice.

In fact, the Tajik government has been very prudent and quick to react in dealing with the crisis. Since January, all incoming travelers have been screened for symptoms, and as soon as the pandemic affected the broader region, the government decided to gradually close all land borders. Except for a number of flights from Moscow to repatriate thousands of migrant workers who were promptly put in quarantine, all international flight connections were suspended, too. A number of international organizations, predominantly the Aga Khan Development Network, provide additional support to prevent the spread and increase the preparedness to respond to any new developments. Students and staff of the University of Central Asia, for example, launched an information campaign and distributed posters on preventive measures and symptoms across Khorog.

What remains unclear is the magnitude of the impact of the crisis on the Tajik economy. The country is heavily dependent on remittances which constitute roughly one-third of Tajikistan’s GDP. With the majority of labor migrants working in the construction and service industries in Russia, a significant drop in remittance inflows is to be expected. What makes matters worse, Russia is also one of the major trade partners of Tajikistan, making it greatly reliant on the performance of Russia’s economy, which in turn is to a large degree determined by global oil prices. By extension, and despite not being an oil-exporting country itself, the dramatic fall of oil prices following the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, will likely depress Tajikistan’s economy.

Lastly, people living in rural and mountainous areas were hopeful to benefit from the recently growing numbers of tourists. Many families took out loans to upgrade their homes into homestays or invested their money otherwise in services catering towards tourists. However, it is clear that 2020 will record a historic low of international visitors, which will make it hard if not impossible for these families, whose livelihoods rely exclusively on the income from tourism, to repay their debts or make a living altogether.

Yet, either due to denial, the prevalent belief in determinism, or just personal characteristics, the majority of people remain positive and hopeful thus far. And despite neighboring China to one side and Afghanistan to the other, being in the heart of Central Asia, it really seems to be true that the eye of the cyclone is the calmest.

Jakub Polansky is a PhD student at the University of Sussex and currently performing fieldwork along the Afghan-Tajik border.

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