By Olga Dzyubenko
BISHKEK (Reuters) - A man in his 60s, distraught and tearful, cries "I don't know what to do now" as medical staff in protective gear carry the body of his dead wife out of a former bakery converted into a makeshift clinic in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian nations are struggling with a surge in COVID-19 cases which is now testing their healthcare systems to breaking point after they relaxed tough lockdown restrictions in May.
Uzbekistan, the region's most populous nation, said on Wednesday it would impose a second lockdown from July 10 to Aug. 1, with the closure of all non-food shopping malls, cafes, restaurants, parks and entertainment venues.
Neighbouring Kazakhstan also imposed a second lockdown from July 5, citing a jump in COVID-19 cases.
Authorities in the region, located between Russia and China, are converting sports arenas, hotels and other venues into temporary hospitals and mobilising interns, fresh graduates and even doctors who were struck off due to criminal convictions.
"The situation is dire," said Nurilya Cholponbay, a bank marketing executive who has become a volunteer in Bishkek.
"Many people arrive in grave condition... They opened a day patient facility in the Sports Palace, but people with severe cases started arriving there and all it has is beds, lights and intravenous drip stands."
The former bakery is also not properly equipped to handle severe COVID-19 cases but patients can visit to get intravenous drips, preferably using medicines they have bought themselves.
It is also one of few places where Bishkek residents can see a doctor at all as hospitals are full.
Such makeshift facilities exist largely thanks to donations from businessmen and volunteers who raise funds and organise supplies of food, protective gear, medicines and ventilators through social networks and messenger apps.
BRIBES FOR BEDS
Kyrgyzstan, with a population of 6.5 million, saw a sharp increase in COVID-19 infections in June and has now confirmed 8,486 cases with 112 deaths.
Many ordinary Kyrgyz do not bother with tests. Akzhol, a 40-year-old unemployed economist, said he developed COVID-19 symptoms such as the loss of smell after attending a funeral of his friend's mother who died from pneumonia two weeks ago.
"I did not even try to get hospitalised," he said. "The rush was on already by that time, hospitals were not taking in patients. People would queue up and pay $200-300 (in bribes) to get a family member in as soon as a bed freed up."
The Kyrgyz government considered the idea of re-imposing a state of emergency but decided against it.
"The reintroduction of tough restrictions including halting work in most sectors of the economy would be devastating for businesses and for citizens' welfare," Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov said this week.
Kazakhstan, an oil-exporting nation of 19 million people, reimposed its second, albeit softer, lockdown this week after its number of COVID-19 cases more than tripled in June.
Kazakh authorities have introduced rationing of high-demand medicines such as popular anti-fever drug paracetamol and are cracking down on its illegal trade which they say has flourished amid widespread shortages.
Kazakhstan has confirmed more than 51,000 COVID-19 cases with 264 deaths and also reported that hospitals are full in some major cities.
Uzbekistan, with 34 million people, has confirmed almost 11,000 cases and only 40 deaths, but more than half of those fatalities occurred within the last two weeks.
Khabibulla Okilov, a member of the Uzbek state COVID-19 task force, said on Wednesday: "It would not be an exaggeration to say the resources of the healthcare system are exhausted."
(Reporting by Olga Dzyubenko and Vladimir Pirogov in Bishkek, Mariya Gordeyeva in Almaty and Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov in Tashkent; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Gareth Jones)