Azerbaijan found itself sitting on a coronavirus powder keg when
the news surfaced in mid-February that its southern neighbor Iran had
experienced one of the first cases outside China. Within less than a week,
Iran, along with China and Italy, became the worst nightmare of the other
countries’ leaders. Total population of these 3 countries sum up to almost a
quarter of the population of the world. Iran has now suffered more than 20,000
cases of Covid-19, leading to more than 1500 deaths.
Sharing a 750-km-long border, more than 20 million ethnic Azerbaijanis live in Iran, and the countries share deep cultural, political and historic ties. Constant interaction among these populations increases even further as it gets closer to Nowruz: a holiday that most countries in the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia celebrate due to the coming of spring. On February 15, 2020, Iran’s first coronavirus case had occurred in Qom, a city in the north of Iran, not far from the Azerbaijani border.
Although the World Health Organization had notified the global community about the potential of a coronavirus pandemic on December 31, 2019, most government leaders didn’t take it seriously. When the news in Qom was announced, Azerbaijan was focused on internal politics related to the Parliamentary election. In addition, the country was trying to avoid getting caught in a geopolitical row over the U.S. drone assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in early January 2020. Although both Azerbaijan and Iran are Shia Muslim-majority countries, Azerbaijan is US ally and has good relations with Israel.
Outbreak and Initial
Azerbaijan has been stated as the least ready to battle an epidemic in a Global Health Index. The ranking takes into consideration measures such as the number of testing facilities, physicians and nurses who can respond to an epidemic, the number of intensive care units, and number of intensive-care and normal hospital beds. Although the number of doctors and nurses in Azerbaijan are in par with the global per-capita average, there is a shortage of intensive care units and critical-care-beds.
… Vs. Practice
However, being book smart could be helpful up to a certain point.
Azerbaijan (along with many developing countries) seems to have the situation
controlled better than most first world countries. Being lucky initially, despite poor response at the borders and on
transparency, the government was able to handle the crisis better in the
Azerbaijan’s first response to the news in Qom was to dispatch the head of the State Border Service to a key border-crossing area. The agency set up mobile clinics in the cities of Astara and Jalilabad that were essentially MASH units – tents with portable beds.
As the number of cases in Iran increased, Azerbaijani health
officials began calling for the border to be closed. Although the government
had established an operational headquarter at the end of January, what finally
triggered action was Azerbaijan confirming its first coronavirus case on
February 28 – an ethnic Azerbaijani citizen of Georgia who had traveled from
Iran through Azerbaijan. A day later, Azerbaijan confirmed two more cases, and
announced borders with Iran closed.
On March 2, officials ordered all of Azerbaijan’s education centers closed for a week – a dictum that would extend twice, into April. Two days later, on 4th of March, the first (and so far the only) death case occurred. The upcoming ban was about all public celebrations of Nowruz (March 10).
Three days later, gatherings of more than 10 people, including weddings and funerals were banned. On March 17, entrance to the capital city and the Caspian seaport of Sumgait were limited to residents and essential service providers only. Same day, all education facilities were announced closed for another month.
By the time it was March 24, severe actions had been taken to stop
the spread of the virus among citizens. People over the age of 65 were imposed
a curfew regime and all entertainment centers including but not limited to
cafes, restaurants and shopping malls faced limitations in work hours. Any
gatherings of more than 10 people are now banned and anyone not following the
suggestions would be punished.
Action From Top
As Azerbaijanis’ concern mounted, the president and VP stepped in
to ask for citizens’ calm and cooperation. The president also announced
creation of a $580 million fund to fight Covid-19 and increase in salaries of
the medical workers.
The messages from the top took a political turn when top officials
accused the opposition of trying to use the turmoil to bolster their cause.
Aliyev hinted about an opposition crackdown while indicating he would not
exclude the possibility of declaring the situation a national emergency.
The virus has hammered the economies of countries around the
world, and Azerbaijan is no exception. Remittances are down from Azerbaijanis
working in Turkey and Russia. Many people lost their jobs or voluntarily
returned to their home country to spend time with their loved ones during the
Tourism sector is crushed just like elsewhere. Most hotels turned
into quarantine for possible infection – which could be stated as one of the
These disruptions come against a plunge in the price of oil, which
along with gas is Azerbaijan’s major source of income. Although Azerbaijan has
a larger sovereign wealth fund and more central bank reserves than in previous
oil crises, its banking system has come under strong pressure due to a drop in
the value of the country’s currency.
To support and prevent the crash of small businesses, the
government’s $580-million-fund will be helpful if allocated properly.
Nevertheless, more than 90 million AZN (near $53 million) was raised by the
government with donations of companies and citizens to fight the virus.
What could’ve been
One of the lessons in Azerbaijan’s response to the coronavirus was
lack of preparedness. Although the government had a national emergency plan
that included a protocol for fighting epidemics, it had never conducted an
exercise dealing with countering a viral or biological weapon threat.
In addition, communication with citizens seemed to lack
transparency. The Minister of Health didn’t make any announcement until later
weeks of the crisis. Announcements made through the Cabinet of Ministers were
mainly numbers. No further information about the cases and infected people were
made related to the demographics (age, region, etc.). They also failed to give
Azerbaijanis timely warnings of disruptive actions to be taken. As an example,
a last-minute ban on air travel between Turkey and Azerbaijan left hundreds of
Azerbaijanis stranded at Turkish airports.
The amount of tests made were also insufficient when compared to other countries. So far, 20000 tests were made which resulted in 122 confirmed cases and more than 3000 are still waiting for their results. Despite WHO insisting on more tests, no information is given about the number of kits reserved and to be used in the near future by the government. Nevertheless, official numbers prove to us that real life is much more complex and unexpected than the odds on paper. Being a third world country, most people would assume that Azerbaijan would suffer worse than Italy, Spain or the USA. However, much stronger countries seem to have more cases per capita even with greater resources. We don’t know what would be expected in the near future and no matter how strongly governments take precautions, the human factor would be deciding the fate of humanity globally.
Authors: Ozal Mammadli, Rauf Mammadov