On 26 March, the United States announced a $274 million package for COVID-19-related foreign aid. The investment is directed towards “64 of the most at-risk countries”, with all Central Asian republics included in the list. The move came as a response to China’s success in enchanting public opinion in European countries, sending doctors and material aid to help fight the epidemic, while supporting its more usual partners along the new ‘Health Silk Road’ in both Asia and Africa. With a few spectacular moves, like using the Belt and Road train to Europe to deliver aid to Spain, China is redesigning its international role. At the same time, the US is raising tensions by blaming China for the spread of the disease and denouncing an alleged cover-up of the number of cases in Hubei.
In the midst of the US-China standoff, the coronavirus is reaching the developing world. The virus hit Central Asia in mid-March, when Kazakhstan announced the first cases, soon followed by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are still declaring zero cases. After three weeks and almost 2,300 cases, the virus has started threatening the region. Kazakhstan is counting on different sources to build up its health system. On its latest self-assessment of health operations for the WHO, the country underlined the presence of emergency infrastructure as a strength of the Kazakh health system. However, it also signalled the lack of a national emergency response plan as a potential weakness. It is not surprising therefore that the Ministry of Health is buying millions of items of equipment to handle the crisis. In the case of Uzbekistan, the role of President Mirziyoyev has been fundamental to coordinate a regional response to the pandemic, personally contacting all Central Asian leaders and taking the lead as aid provider, particularly for Afghanistan, the region’s most vulnerable country.
Multilateral aid from international financial agencies is actively supporting Central Asian countries in their reaction to the pandemic. The World Bank has started COVID-related projects with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, while the International Monetary Fund is securing $120.9 million credit to help Kyrgyz economy. At the same time, Kazakhstan is using the World Bank’s Social Health Insurance Project to buy machinery and equipment. In Asia, the Asian Development Bank was the first to announce a $6.5 billion investment and the Chinese-oriented Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank just announced a $5 billion Covid-19 Crisis Recovery Facility, while pledging to upgrade its investments in public health infrastructure.
But China has also stepped in, sending medical equipment to Central Asia, as its unique position in the world as the first country to allegedly win the battle against the coronavirus allows it to concentrate on sending equipment and technical support abroad. The role of Chinese businesses is crucial as they now act as proxies for the government and offer support and medical equipment abroad. For example, the Alibaba Foundation is sending supplies to both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, among others.
Conversely, US President Donald Trump attracted unfavourable attention for his lack of seriousness in dealing with the coronavirus. When the virus hit the US, turning the country in one of the most affected places in the world, America found itself lacking an internal plan to fight the disease and wobbly in its participation to a global response. USAID had started delivering equipment; however, when it became clear that the US health system was not ready to handle the epidemic, the government froze material aid amid a review of internal requirements. Hence, the agency started committing monetary foreign aid instead of equipment and launching an intensive communication campaign to support the US’ uncontested role as leader in international development. In Central Asia, Uzbekistan was the only country to receive equipment from the US. Subsequently, USAID declared that $800,000 would be allocated to help Kazak and Uzbek authorities to fight the pandemic.
As of today, Western-led institutions are still leading global aid and US leadership in foreign aid was never in doubt. Yet Trump’s actions have been detrimental to the US’ global image. COVID-19 is heavily testing Washington’s ability to lead the global response as the US’ position is weaker than ever in the past. Hiccups in providing equipment and aid showed a poor image of the world’s biggest economy. Meanwhile, China is making the most of its winner status (so far, at least), boosting its international position with material aid. Central Asia is a perfect example of the shaky position of the United States and the success of Chinese efforts. While the US is pledging monetary investments, the Chinese press keeps publishing pictures of airplanes full of supplies flying to the region to immediately support the population. If Italian and Spanish public opinion have been impacted by Chinese aid and US complacency, this could be China’s opportunity to impress Central Asia and soften the growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the region.