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Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

Returning to Bishkek, photographer Stephen Lioy was placed in quarantine at a site he’s always wanted to explore: the old U.S. military base.

By Stephen Lioy for
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Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

Arriving to the quarantine facility (now referred to by the original U.S. name, Ganci Base) felt more akin to being taken to prison than to a hospital – much of the security apparatus of the facility has remained untouched since U.S. troops left in 2014.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

Conditions weren’t quite as bad as that, of course – we were given some limited freedom of movement within the base’s quarantine zone, had meals delivered three times per day by the facility’s staff, and were mostly free to do with our time as we pleased.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

All of us being held in quarantine at Ganci Base were housed in what appear to be the former barracks of the U.S. base – each identified by a block number, and within each of which the residents largely kept to themselves for fear of contamination from other blocks.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

Each block consisted of two floors of around 28 rooms down a long corridor, with shared latrine and shower facilities. Most days, base officials visited in the afternoon to disinfect the corridor and shared facilities with what seemed to be a bleach-based cleaner.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

All rooms in my block were fitted with two beds – though I was told in other areas there were rooms for up to six – however the majority appeared to be occupied by only a single resident, including my own, often at the insistence of residents who feared contamination.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

Shared washroom facilities generated some concern as a potential source of contamination, despite being sanitized each day, as residents attempted to stay clean and avoid being infected with the COVID-19 virus while sharing quarantine with other possibly-infected residents.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

Camp staff dropped off meals three times per day – typically in single- or double-portioned sets of plastic bowls and tableware with a main dish, a soup or salad, a slice of bread, and a teabag. Food quality was similar to what might be found in local sanatoria and the service arguably friendlier.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

For many, the biggest challenge was just how to pass each day. While most residents self-isolated to the greatest extent possible, others organized sports or sat together for long discussions in the sunshine out front of their room blocks.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

Some passed the time with intellectual activities such as board games and book reading, others by posting to social media. One resident in my block even asked his family to drop off a television, together with an antenna which he connected to keep abreast of local news.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

In fact, package delivery hours were one of the highlights of the day for most residents. Families dropped off everything from clothing and food (including at least one large sushi dinner) to basic cooking supplies and electronics.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

For my part, I spent a little time each day exploring the small slice of the base to which we were allowed access, utilizing my photography hobby as a creative outlet and a chance to kill a few hours of daylight each afternoon.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

Ganci base certainly lived up to my expectations as a photography subject – military security and abandoned urban space photogenically rolled into one – though, of course, I really could have done with a bit less time working with this particularly subject.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

Finally, just after midnight on my fifth night in quarantine, medical staff visited to take blood samples from each resident for new quick-result COVID-19 tests. After 20 minutes of anxious waiting, we were told that our entire block had tested negative for the disease.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

Around 21 hours later and after an endless day of waiting to find out whether rumors to this effect were true, at 9 p.m. on the sixth day at Ganci, we were boarded onto buses and driven back to Manas Airport to reunite with our families and return to our homes.

Credit: Stephen Lioy
Inside COVID-19 Quarantine in Kyrgyzstan

Like all of my quarantine companions, I was then obliged to restart the clock at 0 days for a 14-day home-quarantine, with strictly no going out unless we display disease symptoms and need to go to the doctor. But being home, with family now just on the other side of the bedroom door, makes the wait so much more bearable.

Credit: Stephen Lioy

On March 19, arriving at Bishkek’s Manas International Airport from Istanbul, I was sent to mandatory quarantine according to Kyrgyzstan’s rules for travelers who had visited the highest-infection countries within the previous 30 days. At the time, that included China, Italy, Iran, Spain, South Korea, France, the United States, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, and Germany (where I had visited for several days at the beginning of March). Travelers arriving from a further set of countries were legally obliged to observe a 14-day self-quarantine at home, with daily check-ins by local medical staff in each district.

In mid-March, Kyrgyzstan had only recently recorded its first case of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19. As of April 6, Kyrgyzstan had identified 216 cases, most of them in the south of the country where the first cases appeared.

With the capital, Bishkek, and much of the south now under an official “state of emergency,” local residents and officials alike hope to be able to contain the disease without reaching the state of exponential growth seen in many countries, learning from the experiences of those countries that have already been hit the hardest. 

Like most travelers arriving via Manas airport last month, I was sent to a repurposed military base, once home to the U.S. military’s Transit Center Manas and donated to the Kyrgyz National Guard upon the departure of the United States from the facility in June 2014. As an American formerly working in Kyrgyzstan and now married to a Kyrgyz citizen I had long been curious to see inside the facility, but never expected to do so for an extended visit. 

Stephen Lioy is travel photographer and writer based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.