TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan is sending humanitarian aid to help fight the coronavirus pandemic in neighbouring countries as citizens band together to take care of the nation's poor and elderly.
On April 1, a train carrying humanitarian aid set off from Uzbekistan on the Hairatan–Mazar-e-Sharif railway.
The goodwill train bound for Afghanistan was carrying medical masks and protective equipment, thermal imagers, food, soap and children's clothing.
"The coronavirus infection has put the world's entire population at risk. The only way to defeat it is through the united efforts of all countries," Samandar Khikmatullayev, a spokesman for Uzbekistan's Ministry of Emergency Situations, told the Uzbekistan National News Agency (UzA).
"The aid Uzbekistan is providing to the Afghan people is a vivid example of this solidarity," he said.
In a telephone conversation on March 26, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his Afghan counterpart, Ashraf Ghani, agreed to work together to fight the pandemic and reaffirmed their commitment to co-operation.
Uzbekistan on April 1 also sent humanitarian aid via train to Kyrgyzstan.
The aid, organised by the Uzbek Ministry of Emergency Situations, the administration of Andijan Province, Uzbekistan Railways and various Uzbek businesses, delivered 1,000 tonnes of flour, food, protective equipment and thermal imagers.
A banner on the train read "From the Uzbek people to the Kyrgyz people".
Helping one's neighbour
"To understand the value of this humanitarian aid, it's important to understand the situation that is developing in Uzbekistan," said Tashkent-based political scientist Umid Asatullayev.
"People weren't rich to begin with, but because of the pandemic, they're losing even more and they're losing their last sources of income," he said.
"Helping one's neighbour is deeply ingrained in Uzbek national traditions such as the life of the community -- or mahalla -- and khashar, joint volunteer labour," he added. "Uzbeks simply can't fail to help, even when they don't have abundant resources."
To support the most vulnerable strata of the population during the pandemic, Mirziyoyev signed a decree on April 3 to provide monetary assistance to an additional 120,000 low income families, on top of 600,000 who were already receiving assistance.
Also as part of the assistance, elderly Uzbeks living on their own and people with disabilities will receive handouts of 18 types of food along with hygiene products.
People in need will receive flour, rice, meat, eggs, sugar and other products, including medical masks, soap and antiseptics.
Mirziyoyev called on citizens to join together to fight the pandemic and promised that anyone who needs help will receive it.
"Not a single person, not a single family in Uzbekistan, will be left without the attention and care of our state and society!" Mirziyoyev said in a statement on April 3.
For almost a week after authorities declared a quarantine in Uzbekistan and before Mirziyoyev's decree, volunteers were already gathering contributions and helping elderly Uzbeks living on their own and people with disabilities.
The quarantine began March 24 and will last until two weeks after the last confirmed case of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Uzbekistan.
Uzbeks immediately coalesced into dozens of groups to make home deliveries of groceries to other Uzbeks in need.
"Uzbeks showed their best selves, coming together and supporting one another," said Furkat Atanazarov, a Tashkent resident.
"That's our hallmark, which is consistently written about in books describing Uzbekistan. I wasn't sure that we had preserved it. But in this difficult situation, everything somehow organised itself, and I'm now proud of our people," he said.
"There are many, many good people in Tashkent. Someone buys the food, someone delivers it, someone sews masks and donates them," Aziza Umarova, an activist from Tashkent and leader of a volunteer group, wrote on her Facebook page.
"If we do a mass distribution, there are always volunteers who will take their cars and go to the specified addresses. Today, psychologists who are willing to work with the elderly responded. There are many examples like this," Umarova said.
In order to centralise the mass volunteer movement, Uzbekistan created a Sponsorship Co-ordination Centre in each province.
In addition, the National Commission to Fight the Coronavirus decided to suspend private individual charitable actions.
"The noble impulse of the people required discipline and standardisation. It goes without saying that the volunteers performed their work with flying colours, reacting immediately," said Bobur Akilov, a staff member in the Cabinet of Ministers.
"But to prevent the epidemic, it's essential to abide by safety precautions. This applies especially to interactions with the elderly, who are in the high-risk group. Goods need to be disinfected, and you can't make direct contact with the elderly," Akilov said.
The first such centre opened in Tashkent on April 1, and organisers set up a special fund to collect money. Sponsors are bringing food and goods to the building, where workers disinfect everything.
All of the centre's employees and volunteers wear protective outerwear on the job. Trained volunteers deliver the food to families in need.
Uzbekistan's recently created Ministry for Mahalla (Community) and Family Affairs oversees the centre's work.
Authorities have opened a call centre, reachable by dialing 1197, to connect those in need and those interested in volunteering.
A hundred volunteers delivered food to 1,996 residents on the first day, according to the Tashkent mayor's office.
"Mercy for those close to us is in the blood of the Uzbek nation -- Islam speaks about this," said Mahmoud Abzalkhujayev, a volunteer at the centre in Tashkent.
"I offered to help out at the new centre because I want to spend my free time on righteous help, as our religion teaches us," he said.