Uzbek leader chides officials over "deplorable" COVID-19 situation

FILE PHOTO: Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev attends a news conference with his Kazakh counterpart Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Tashkent, Uzbekistan April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov/File Photo

TASHKENT (Reuters) - Uzbekistan’s president has criticised his health minister and the mayor of Tashkent over their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, warning that the situation in the capital was “deplorable” and causing popular discontent.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s comments were the first official acknowledgement that Central Asia’s most populous nation is having problems coping with the new coronavirus.

The former Soviet republic of 34 million imposed a second nationwide lockdown this month and has confirmed 14,581 COVID-19 cases, with 71 deaths.

Mirziyoyev said Tashkent, which has a population of 2.5 million, and Tashkent province accounted for about 40% of the cases. People in the capital are having trouble buying some medicines, getting tested for COVID-19 or calling an ambulance, his office quoted him as saying late on Wednesday.

The president reprimanded health minister Alisher Shodmonov and Tashkent mayor Jahongir Artikhojayev for failing to stop the spread of the virus, it said.

“The healthcare ministry has over the last month failed to stick to the strategy and tactics of coronavirus treatment and did not adjust the treatment protocols to the changing situation,” Mirziyoyev was quoted as saying.

“There are shortages of test kits and necessary medicines in the city of Tashkent. The prices of antiviral and anti-fever medicines in drugstores are inflated a few times over for no good reason.”

Demand for ambulances has grown as the pandemic worsened. Mirziyoyev said 43 people had died from various illnesses in just three days while waiting for an ambulance.

He did not comment further on what he said was popular discontent over the pandemic, but ordered the authorities to increase numbers of medical staff and available hospital beds, and to ensure adequate supply of drugs and food staples.

Reporting by Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov, Editing by Timothy Heritage