Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan cautiously prepare for second reopening

ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s largest nations, are set to ease their second coronavirus lockdowns this weekend, which they had to introduce after botched reopenings in May and June led to a surge in fresh cases.

Kazakhstan, which has reported far more cases than its more populous neighbour, said on Friday it would keep in place some strict measures such as weekend lockdowns.

“We realise very well that there are more contacts between people on weekends, people move around,” chief state sanitary doctor Aizhan Yesmagambetova told a briefing.

Kazakhstan, which has confirmed almost 102,000 COVID-19 cases with 1,356 deaths, will also keep its schools closed in September and October and rely on online classes.

The extended lockdown, initially due to end on Aug. 2, is likely to push the economy into a deeper-than-expected 3.5% contraction this year, Artem Zaigrin, chief economist at the SOVA Capital brokerage, said in a note.

“Kazakhstan could offset the deeper decline through additional fiscal spending during the rest of the year and the further easing of its monetary policy given the substantial disinflationary pressures coming from weaker consumer demand,” he said.

Uzbekistan, which has reported 33,323 cases and 216 deaths, will decide in late August whether to reopen its schools, first deputy healthcare minister Bahodir Yusupaliev said on Friday.

“The situation has stabilised, we have reached a plateau,” he said by telephone from Tashkent. “We want to observe the dynamics (of coronavirus spread) for seven to 10 days before we decide on schools.”

Both countries now plan to rely more on low-level medical workers and special facilities to sort out cases that require hospitalisation and have others quarantined at their homes to avoid hospital overcrowding seen in July.

Yusupaliev said the Tashkent government would also work closely with mahalla, or neighbourhood, committees to monitor the situation and enforce regulations.

And while Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev instructed his government to send a delegation to Russia this month for talks on purchasing the newly developed Russian vaccine, Uzbekistan plans to await the results of further trials before deciding whether to buy, Yusupaliev said.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Steve Orlofsky