Azerbaijani villagers fear hunger, poverty more than COVID

Author: Meltem Talibzade

Collages by Gular Abbasova

Saida Verdiyeva, 49, has her doubts about the dangers of the coronavirus. But she is sure the restrictions put in place to stop the Covid-19 will harm her and her children.

Officially, there are no cases of Covid-19 in Toganali, the tiny village in northwestern Azerbaijan where Saida lives with her abusive husband and two school-aged children.

“What? The coronavirus? Do you believe in such things?” she asks.

Saida has not seen any sign of the virus, but she is already feeling its impact. The invisible threat has prompted massive restrictions across the country, including in rural communities, like Toganali.

The restrictions, which aim to halt the spread of the virus, affect nearly every aspect of Saida’s life: large ceremonies—like the weddings Saida depends on as a dishwasher—have been banned; schools have closed, leaving her children stuck at home; and, perhaps most important for Saida, she cannot no longer count on neighbors for help due to enforced social distancing.

“Yesterday my husband came at me with an ax, and if I had not run to my neighbors' house, I could have died. How do we maintain that social distance now? The police say you can't go out the door, but no one says your husband can't beat you,” she says.

“I'm afraid that at any moment he will get worse, and he will hurt me and my children. I always say that my neighbors protect me. Now the state is taking that away from us through this social isolation.”

With no job and no income, Saida also fears she and her family will go hungry before the restrictions are lifted, reportedly on May 31.

Her neighbors also fear hunger more than the risk of the virus. But medical professionals warn that Covid-19 poses a real threat for rural communities like Toganali.

The village, like many others like it, is cut off from the rest of the country due to a ban on travel between communities. For Jeyran Imanova, 57, the Toganali’s only nurse, the travel ban and other restrictions translate into medicine shortages and, potentially, a health crisis in the village. 

She says even if someone falls ill, there are no medical supplies or facilities to treat them in Toganali. 

Jeyran says that usually, at this time of year, people suffer from the seasonal flu and people come to her to treat high fevers. She normally sends them to the nearest hospital, seven kilometers away in Goygol. “But now the situation is different. We fear that these patients may also have the virus,” she says.

“We have repeatedly told officials that we do not have an ambulance and that we have trouble transporting patients to the hospital, which is located in Goygol. But nobody listened to us… Thankfully, our village is remote and isolated. Otherwise, I can't imagine the situation if we are infected with this virus.”

Public health specialist Gunel Isakova also worries that rural communities like Toganali could be at high risk if the virus spreads outside of urban centers. She notes that people in villages are more likely to leave their homes, to work in the fields or to visit neighbors, meaning the coronavirus could spread quickly.

While local medical professionals like Jeyran try to educate their communities about the dangers of the virus, Isakova argues the government should do more to inform remote villages about the coronavirus and the importance of preventive measures. 

“In cities, health workers go to people’s homes and take their temperatures. But this is not happening in remote villages. Therefore, the risk of infection is higher. It was necessary to go to the villages with large, educational posters and set them up in popular public places,” she says. 

Azerbaijani economist Azer Mehdiyev agrees rural communities are at risk. “Villagers often go to each other's houses, and as soon as one of them is ill, everyone is obliged to visit him. It is impossible to implement quarantine rules. Therefore, there is a bigger risk for people in the village to become infected and spread the disease. It is unclear when such a disease will appear.  Unfortunately, educational activities have not been carried out to inform people [about these dangers]--either in villages or in cities,” Mehdiyev says.

He notes that if the state provided people with food during the quarantine, it would help ensure rural communities could stay indoors and observe social distancing. 

”The villagers are people of the land and want to plant and cultivate.  Even now, they will work in the fields to earn money, rather than following quarantine rules. The government should provide them with food. Only under these conditions will the government encourage them to follow the quarantine rules,” Azer Meydiyev says. 

But locals say little help has come from the central government. Saida, who depended on dishwashing jobs at large weddings to supplement the social assistance her husband receives, says she has applied for financial help but has not received anything yet.

The deputy head of the local municipality, Ali Mammadov, says the local government is aware of the problems facing residents in Toganali, but has few resources to help them. 

”We know all these difficulties and try to help people as much as we can. There are a lot of problems with the local infrastructure,” he says, noting that the municipality has started to provide food assistance from its own limited coffers since no aid has come from the central government.

Mammadov argues, however, that locals need to do their part to respect the social distancing rules. While the law allows them to go to the fields to plant and harvest, in reality, people are filling the days socializing with neighbors and violating the quarantine, he says. 

But villagers argue they have little choice but to go out to try and find food and medicine. 

There are only a handful of shops in Toganali and they are running out of food. One shop owner, Zarangiz Hasanova, says she had to temporarily close because there is nothing left to sell. 

Zarangiz notes that usually people take goods on credit and then pay her in installments. “I cannot bring in new goods because I cannot collect on the debts. So I have closed the store for a while,” she says.

“Now, people do not have any income. How can I demand payment from them?”




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