Villagers fear hunger, poverty more than COVID

Meltem Talibzade

This story was first published by Chai Khana.

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

Officially, there are no cases of COVID-19 in Toganali, a village of about 1,000 in northwestern Azerbaijan where Verdiyeva lives with her abusive husband and two school-aged children.

“What? The coronavirus? Do you believe in such things?” she asks your correspondent from Baku.

Verdiyeva has not seen any sign of the virus, but she is already feeling its impact in the restrictions the government has placed on movement across the country, including in rural communities like Toganali. Technically, Verdiyeva needs to inform the police if she wishes to go outside. 

More practically, large ceremonies – like the weddings Verdiyeva depends on as a dishwasher at a local restaurant – have been banned; schools have closed, leaving her children stuck at home; and, perhaps most important for Verdiyeva, she cannot no longer count on neighbors for help due to enforced social distancing.

“Yesterday my husband came at me with an axe. If I had not run to my neighbors' house, I could have died,” she says.” The police say you can't go out the door, but no one says your husband can't beat you.” 

“My neighbors protect me. Now the state is taking that away from us through this social isolation.”

With no job and no income, Verdiyeva also fears she and her family will go hungry before the restrictions are lifted.

Her neighbors, too, fear hunger more than the virus. But medical professionals warn that COVID-19 poses a real threat for rural communities like Toganali.

For Jeyran Imanova, 57, Toganali’s only nurse, the travel ban and other restrictions translate into medicine shortages and, potentially, a local health crisis. She says that even if someone falls ill, there are no medical supplies or facilities to treat them in Toganali. 

Imanova says that usually, at this time of year, people suffer from the seasonal flu and people come to her to treat fevers. She normally sends them to the nearest hospital, seven kilometers away in Goygol.

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

Gunel Isakova, a public health specialist in Baku, also worries that rural communities like Toganali could be at high risk. She explains 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 more quickly. 

While local professionals like Imanova try to educate their communities about the dangers of COVID-19, Isakova argues the government should do more to inform remote villages about 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 is necessary to go to the villages with large, educational posters and set them up in popular public places,” Isakova says. 

Economist Azer Mehdiyev, head of the Support for Economic Initiatives Center in Baku, agrees that 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,” Mehdiyev says.

If the state provided people with food during the quarantine, it would help ensure rural families stay indoors and observe social distancing, he adds. “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 follow quarantine rules. The government should provide them with food. Only under these conditions will the government encourage them to follow the quarantine rules.” 

But locals say the authorities have offered little help. Verdiyeva, whose restaurant is closed, says she has applied for unemployment support, but has not received anything yet.

The deputy head of the local municipality, Ali Mammadov, says the 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 Baku. 

Mammadov argues, however, that locals need 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. 

In Toganali, villagers say they are simply trying to find food and medicine. There are only a handful of shops in Toganali and they are running out of food. 

Shop owner Zarangiz Hasanova says she had to temporarily close because there is nothing left to sell. 

Usually people take goods on credit and then pay Hasanova 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?”