Turkmenistan has a secret weapon against the coronavirus pandemic: the smoke from a shrub with supposed medicinal virtues touted by the authoritarian president of this reclusive country in Central Asia, who claims to be spared from COVID-19.
In addition to taking the temperature of her students, Aïna Garaïeva, a teacher in Ashkhabad, the Turkmen capital, regularly fumigates her classroom by burning harmal, also called wild street, which the fantastic Turkmen leader Gurbangouly Berdymoukhamedov appreciates so much.
“We are only following the instructions given to us” by the government, explains the 42-year-old woman.
Harmal has been used since time immemorial in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia as a miracle cure for various diseases and to ward off bad luck.
Called “yuzerlik” in Turkmenistan, which means “cure for a hundred diseases”, this particularly strong-smelling plant is enjoying increased popularity amid the pandemic, although Ashkhabad prides itself on being with North Korea the one of the few states in the world escaping the disease.
Because in March, the President of Turkmenistan ordered harmal fumigations “systematically”, extolling its ability to kill bacteria and viruses.
Since this oukaze, the price of the bouquet has been multiplied by five, to exchange for five manats, or 1.17 euros.
In neighboring Uzbekistan, the renowned doctor Bakhrom Almatov warned in the local media that this herb had “no direct effect” on viruses, despite its medicinal properties.
Masks against “dust”
The Turkmen president is not the only leader to tout a supposed miracle cure, without scientific basis, against COVID-19: in Madagascar and Africa, many are turning to artemisia, a kind of green fern with fake cannabis tunes.
When asked about harmal, the World Health Organization (WHO) declined to comment on its supposed beneficial effects, but stressed that traditional medicine “has a long history in many countries and is often an important resource for health. health”.
To guard against the coronavirus, however, the health authorities recommend above all the wearing of a mask, social distancing and health habits, such as regular hand washing.
In Turkmenistan, it took a visit by a WHO delegation in July for such measures and public restrictions to be imposed, but the country never admitted a single case of the novel coronavirus – even after the outbreak. British Ambassador to Ashkhabad announced that he was suffering from COVID-19 this week.
Since the summer, non-food stores and restaurants have been closed and train and bus traffic limited. The population is invited to wear masks, officially to protect themselves from “dust” and unknown “pathogens”.
WHO has not confronted the country of Central Asia, worrying during the summer of an increase in pneumonia in Turkmenistan and ensuring that it has received authorization to organize samples on site for analysis in the laboratory.
However, she admitted that the implementation of this initiative has proved “impossible”.
The Turkmen President’s instructions regarding harmal are typical of his initiatives to glorify the flora and fauna of the country, a former Soviet republic.
Coming to power in 2006 after the death of his predecessor, Mr. Berdymoukhamedov has never ceased to celebrate, through books, monuments and staging, the beauty of Turkmen horses and local shepherd dogs.
Its advertising for harmal led to the development of a series of derivative products, in a state-controlled economy ravaged by six years of falling prices for hydrocarbons, the main sources of income.
In December, at a trade show, a public company presented cigar-shaped bricks of dried harmal, capable of burning for 45 minutes and sold for ten manat per box of six.
“They should be affordable for the local population”, assured a representative, who did not give his name.