covid-19 in Central Asia

Trends in Central Asia: Shifting Public Attitudes towards COVID-19 and Prevention Measures

Elizabeth Woods. Graduate student at The University of Tübingen and a Research Fellow at Central Asia Barometer.

06.02.2022

It has now been two years since the global COVID-19 pandemic began. During this period, many countries around the globe have imposed restrictions on public life in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The ongoing closures of national borders, educational institutions, and businesses, in addition to the implementation of mask mandates, social distancing guidelines, and vaccination programs have become part of everyday life for many. Public attitudes towards these measures have naturally evolved since early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted in the public consciousness from being an unprecedented, temporary state of being to our way of life for the foreseeable future. Central Asia is one such region in which public sentiment towards government restrictions has shifted. 

The Central Asia Barometer (CAB) Survey is a biannual large-scale research project that began in 2017, which measures social, economic, and political atmospheres in Central Asian nations, by conducting interviews with 1,000-2,000 respondents in each country.   At the beginning of 2020, we incorporated several questions concerning COVID-19 into our questionnaire, to gain a deeper understanding of issues such as the level of confidence that residents of Central Asian nations have in their country’s ability to handle the coronavirus, which nation they believe would be the best to ask for aid, if necessary, as well as which prevention measures should and should not be implemented. Over the past three waves of the CAB Survey (Waves 7-9), our data has displayed a gradual shift in the level of public concern about the coronavirus and the support which residents of Central Asia have for the implementation of restrictions and preventative measures. Here are seven of the most significant trends which emerged in our data from Spring 2020 to Fall 2021:

1. In Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, the coronavirus has become less of a concern

Our survey first asked respondents from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgystan how concerned they were about the coronavirus, if at all. During the spring of 2020, 73 percent of our respondents in Kazakhstan, 48 percent of those in Uzbekistan, and 75 percent of those in Kyrgystan reported that they were “very concerned” about the presence of the virus in their country at the beginning of the pandemic:

However, by fall these numbers had dropped. Respondents in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan increasingly reported that they were “somewhat concerned” about the coronavirus, while there was an uptick in the number of Uzbekistani respondents who said they were “not at all concerned”. This shift was the greatest in Kazakhstan, with a 27 percent decrease in the number of those who indicated that they were “very concerned” about the virus: This trend continued into the spring of 2021. At this point, just 34 percent of our Kazakhstani and 20 percent of our Uzbekistani respondents indicated that they were still “very concerned” about the presence of coronavirus within their countries. However, levels of concern had remained consistent within Kyrgyzstan: These results display a gradual shift in the public consciousness from the spring of 2020 to the fall of 2021 in each of these nations. While anxieties surrounding COVID-19 were high during the beginning of the pandemic, they dropped over the course of the following year. Concerns about coronavirus waned in each of these nations, but Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan experienced a particularly steady decline, while Kyrgyzstan remained relatively stable following the initial months of the pandemic. Our Kyrgyzstani respondents appear to be generally more worried about COVID-19 than other nations within the region. 

2. Women and older individuals are more concerned about the coronavirus than their male/younger counterparts 

Specific demographics were also more worried about the coronavirus than others during Spring 2021. We found that, in general, older respondents in each country were more likely to be “very concerned” about the COVID-19 pandemic than younger participants, and that women were more likely to have a greater level of concern about the virus than their male counterparts:

Given the devastating effects which COVID-19 can have upon older individuals, it is understandable that this demographic would be more concerned with the presence of the coronavirus within their country than younger respondents. The fact that more women are very concerned by COVID-19 than men may indicate they are more anxious about their own health and that of those around them than their male counterparts.

3. Support for government restrictions has waned 

In addition to diminishing levels of concern, support for government restrictions to combat the coronavirus has steadily decreased in these nations as well. When asked their level of support for government restrictions in the spring of 2020, 59 percent of our Kazakhstani respondents strongly supported the closing of borders, 37 percent the closing of schools, 19 percent the closing of businesses, and 55 percent ordering people to stay at home. These numbers fell dramatically with each wave of the CAB Survey, and by Spring 2021, only 30 percent of our respondents still strongly supported the closing of the country’s borders, 11 percent the closing of schools, 8 percent the closing of businesses, and 24 percent ordering people to stay at home:

In Uzbekistan, support for government restrictions also fell steadily.  In the spring of 2020, 66 percent strongly supported the closing of the country’s borders, 58 percent the closing of schools, 18 percent the closing of businesses, and 78 percent ordering people to stay at home. By Spring 2021, these numbers fell by nearly half. At this point, only 29 percent strongly supported the closing of the country’s borders, 20 percent the closing of schools, 8 percent the closing of businesses, and 31 percent ordering people to stay at home:

Like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan saw a drop in the level of strong support for restrictions as well, but to a slightly lesser extent. At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, 59 percent strongly supported the closing of the country’s borders, 57 percent the closing of schools, 26 percent the closing of businesses, and 69 percent ordering people to stay at home. By spring 2021, only 40 percent still strongly supported the closing of the country’s borders, 28 percent the closing of schools, 17 percent the closing of businesses, and 33 percent ordering people to stay at home:

  As in the case of the waning levels of concern for the coronavirus within these countries, strong sentiments of support for government-imposed restrictions have fallen within each of these nations, possibly due to the growing normalcy of COVID-19 in everyday life within the region. These restrictions, due to this shift in the public consciousness, may now be seen by residents less as essential precautions and more as measures that inhibit movement and the flow of day-to-day life. However, certain restrictions were more favourable for our respondents than others. While the majority of our interviewees in these countries strongly supported their state’s decision to close its borders and to order people to stay at home, few strongly supported the closing of schools, and even fewer were in favour of shutting down businesses as a COVID-19 prevention measure. 

4. Residents of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are less confident in their nations’ ability to handle the coronavirus than Uzbekistanis

Despite a decline in public support for government restrictions across all three countries, there has been a steady increase in the level of confidence that people have in their nation’s ability to handle coronavirus in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan:

  Conversely, this number has dropped slightly in Uzbekistan, from 68 percent in the spring of 2020 to 62 percent in the spring of 2021. However, the number of our Uzbekistani participants who indicated that they were “very confident” that their nation has the necessary resources to handle coronavirus is more than double than that of our Kazakhstani and Kyrgyzstani respondents, respectively. It appears that Uzbekistanis have maintained a much stronger belief in their country’s abilities to keep the nation afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic than their other Central Asian counterparts.

5. Limited support for the closing of businesses has coincided with economic troubles

The considerable lack of support for the closing of businesses in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan has coincided with a growing level of dissatisfaction with each nation’s economic situation among our respondents. During Waves 7-9 (Spring 2020 – Spring 2021) of the CAB Survey, we asked respondents how they would compare the economic situation in their countries today to twelve months ago, and if they thought it had gotten much better, somewhat better, about the same, somewhat worse, or much worse during this time.

During the spring of 2020, only 19 percent of our Kazakhstani respondents indicated that they strongly supported the closing of businesses as a COVID-19 prevention measure. At the same time, 59 percent of this same group reported that they thought the economic situation in their country was either “somewhat worse” or “much worse” than it was a year ago. Conversely, in Uzbekistan, only 18 percent strongly supported the closing of businesses while a smaller amount, at 21 percent, thought that their country’s economic situation had worsened. In Kyrgyzstan, slightly more supported the closing of businesses, at 26 percent, but the number of respondents that thought that Kyrgyzstan’s economic situation had worsened over the last year came in at 65 percent:

This trend continued in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan throughout Fall 2020 and Spring 2021. However, this correlation was less pronounced in the case of Uzbekistan, with the majority of respondents reporting over this period that they thought the nation’s economic situation had become either much better or somewhat better over the past year, despite their declining support for the closing of businesses within the country:

In the case of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and to a much lesser extent, Uzbekistan, there appears to be a correlation between these respondents’ diminishing support for the closing of businesses as a COVID-19 prevention method and the economic situations of their respective nations from Spring 2020 to Spring 2021. Given that many of those interviewed indicated that they believed that their country’s financial situations had worsened over the past twelve months, it is logical that a prevention method such as this, which has the potential to directly affect the livelihoods of many, would be much more unpopular than other restrictions. 

7. In Tajikistan, the frequency of practicing preventative health measures has stalled

As in the case of other Central Asian nations, concerns about the coronavirus appear to have waned in Tajikistan as well. Our survey asked our Tajik respondents if they had increased how frequently they were engaging in COVID-19 prevention measures. The overwhelming majority of respondents during the spring of 2020 reported that they were washing their hands (92 percent), limiting social interactions (90 percent), using hand sanitizer (94 percent), and wearing protective gloves (74 percent) more frequently. Although the number of respondents who claimed they had increased the frequency with which they were taking these precautions remained steady throughout fall 2020, by spring 2021 these numbers had dropped significantly. At this time, 86 percent said that they were washing their hands, 59 percent limiting social interaction, 73 percent using hand sanitizer, and 51 percent using protective gloves more often:

This trend, in conjunction with the previously discussed points, illustrates a shift that has occurred in Central Asia from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring 2020 to a year later, in Spring 2021. Although some facets of public sentiment have remained constant, such as these nations’ trust in Russia as their country’s best source of possible aid and/or vaccines, others have gradually changed. As the coronavirus has become a fact of life for residents of Central Asia, the general level of concern that they have for COVID-19 and the amount of support for government-imposed restrictions has waned. However, these respondents also have grown more confident in their countries’ abilities to handle coronavirus, possibly pointing to the start of a process of recovery for these nations in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.