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Kyrgyzstan Plagued by Bubonic Media Coverage

The story of a 15-year-old boy who died in the eastern part of Kyrgyzstan after contracting the plague caused weeks of excited news coverage both inside and outside the country. But with the tragic case proving isolated, people in the Central Asian republic are now calling for much-needed perspective.

Sanitary services working under the Ministry of Health have ruled out any possibility of an epidemic after the teenager was cremated. The Kyrgyz government has also criticized Russian news portals for stirring groundless panic. Kyrgyzstan's neighbors, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have increased border controls.

A shocking Case

The story, which has been running [ru] since mid-August, began when 15-year-old Temirbek Isakunov visited his relatives in Sary-Jaz village in the eastern Issyk-Kul region of Kyrgyzstan, not far from the Chinese border. There the young boy was infected [ru] by a flea from a marmot, orangey-yellow creatures that are an intractable feature of Kyrgyz mountain nature. Some mass media wrote that the family ate the marmot, although there has been no official confirmation of this. He was treated at home until his neck began to swell. Isakunov was taken to a hospital on August 22, where he died on August 25.

A special group of doctors from the capital Bishkek was sent to the region, but they were unable to diagnose the illness until after Isakunov's body was dissected. The doctors ensured people in the surrounding area that the plague would not spread owing to the existence of antibiotics. Roughly one hundred people in contact with the boy were hospitalized for quarantine before being allowed to return [ru] to normal life. Currently there are no signs of a bubonic epidemic among the local marmot population.

The initial reaction of Kyrgyz netizens was summed up [ru] by a comment from 787, a reader of the Vecherniy Bishkek website:

дожили. вот те на, чума!
Атас!!!!!

 Dear me, plague!

SOS!!!!!

Юлия (Julia) wrote [ru]:

даже не вериться,что в наше время опять это страшная болезнь появилась ….ну в принципи опять виноваты чиновники…при союзе еще кто-то работал,а сейчас так кто кому нужен.сами же знают где мы все живем(в горной местности,где таких очегов валам).так почему же вакцинацию не проводят вовремя.обидно за простой народ….

I cannot believe that such a terrible disease has reemerged in our times… Well, again the officials are guilty… In the [Soviet] Union people worked but now no one cares. We know where we live (a mountainous region where there are many such diseases). So why don't they vaccinate people in time? I fear for common people…

Mass Media Drama

The news piece immediately gained attention from Russian mass media. The Kyrgyz government criticized [ru] several platforms for intentionally providing misinformation and “harming the image of Kyrgyzstan as a tourism destination for our neighbors and the whole CIS.” The Kyrgyz blog kloop.kg, headed by local blogger Bektour Iskender, compiled a list of “provocative” news pieces published by Russian news portals that made no reference to the conclusions of professional doctors in Kyrgyzstan:

  • RosBalt [ru]: “Kyrgyzstan is Threatened by a Bubonic Plague Epidemic”
  • NoviyRegion [ru]: “The North of Kyrgyzstan Suffers an Outbreak of Bubonic Plague”
  • RussiaToday [ru]: “Russia May be Threatened by Bubonic Plague from Kyrgyzstan”

But the most outrageous news report was one aired on the Russian channel “Россия 1” (Russia 1). Journalists from “Russia 1″ used footage of migrants from Central Asia and portrayed them as a threat to Russian well-being. An edited clip of the newsreel and a discussion by netizens can be found here [ru].

In the comments to the video, Kloop user Maksik Kuleshov commented [ru]:

зомбо тв на это и расчитывает что бы зомбо смотрящие могли среагировать на очередное зомбо пропаганду..

Zombie-TV relies on its zombie-watchers reacting to yet another piece of zombie-propaganda..

Dmitry Motinov took [ru] a less emotional view of the coverage, but nevertheless criticized it:

для того, чтобы работать в России, каждый мигрант должен пройти и дактилоскопию, и медобследование, даже если он собирается копать огороды у бабы Глаши. так что не надо ля-ля. другое дело, что нелегалы, конечно, этого не делают (но это уже проблема ФМС).

особенно порадовало, что корреспондент ругается на отсутствие перчаток у парня, который расставляет на полки товар в упаковке %) фимозище.

To work in Russia, every migrant must pass both fingerprinting and medical examinations even if he wants to dig up earth in granny Glasha's garden. So please, no bla-bla. On the other hand, illegal [migrants], of course, don't undergo this test, (but this is a problem for the [Russian] Federal Migration Service).

It is especially funny that [Russian] journalists are angered that a [worker in the report] who stacks shelves doesn't wear gloves %). This is pure crap.

Talant Japarov was more succinct [ru]:

фашисты нашли повода

The fascists just found an excuse [to insult Kyrgyz]

Following sensational coverage of the bubonic death, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan strengthened [ru] controls at check-points across their border with Kyrgyzstan, increasing the number of medical checks for foreigners. Chinese and Mongolian sport delegations also revoked [ru] their participation in the XIII International Games for “Asian Cooperation and Peace” which is currently being held at Kyrgyzstan's Lake Issyk-Kul.

No Drama Please

The plague case came as a disproportionately damaging blow to Kyrgyzstan's international image towards the tail end of a tourist season which had already suffered as a result of political disorder [GV]. Now MPs in the parliament are asking their colleagues to stop talking about the incident, and netizens such as Egor (below) are balancing unbalanced coverage with facts.

The tweet of user Егор (Egor) on the news of possible epidemic saying "I think the panic about plague is groundless. The cases of plague in our region are registered every year. But the epidemic is impossible. Relax.

The tweet of user Егор (Egor) on the news of possible epidemic : “I think the panic about plague is groundless. Cases of plague in our region are registered every year. But epidemics are impossible. Relax.

Central Asia, is the historical heart of the plague. Many historians agree that some of the greatest epidemics were brought to Europe and China by the Mongol warriors or traders through the Silk Road. But while cases of plague are still appearing in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan as well as Kyrgyzstan, there is little evidence of a Black Death brewing in the region.

This post is part of the GV Central Asia Interns Project at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

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