Article begins

Kyrgyz migrants navigate political and economic turmoil to support their families.



Before the current war with Ukraine began, Aybek was employed in Moscow, as a cook. If he had stayed in his home country of Kyrgyzstan, his salary would have been only a third of what he earns in Russia. Aybek’s entire family back in Kyrgyzstan depends on him financially. When we spoke with him, his wife was pregnant, and his mother is in the high-risk group for COVID. Aybek wanted to go back to Kyrgyzstan so he could care for them both, but he knew that if he left, he would lose his job—and medical treatment back in Kyrgyzstan is costly and insufficient. 

Aybek is one of about 700,000 other migrants from Kyrgyzstan who have faced similar conundrums over the last two years. Many migrants have had to ask themselves, Is my financial stability more important than my health? And, is it more important than the health of my family? There are migrants all over the world in this situation, but those from Kyrgyzstan are in a particularly difficult situation as the nation has been hit hard by the pandemic. The current geopolitical strife is not likely to make things any easier. 

Nearly one-third of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP comes from remittances, the transfer of money from one person or household to another. These people leave their home countries to work in other places like Moscow because they offer better economic opportunities to support their families. However, such opportunities have dwindled during the pandemic. About two-thirds of migrants have reported losing their jobs, and over 90 percent of them have been unable to send money home.  

Yet a great number of respondents said their job means more than their health. They see poverty as more damaging than a global virus. In 2020, the poverty rate in the Kyrgyzstan Republic increased by 11%, pushing 700,000 more people into poverty.  

The majority of Kyrgyz citizens live in rural areas and many struggle with food insecurity. A 20-year-old female migrant worker we spoke to reported that her mother told her that their family’s financial situation would be better if she stayed in Russia for the money, showing less concern about her health.  

A few respondents commented that the COVID-19 pandemic has put people in a worse position than the economic crisis of the 1990s did. The costs of food and other essential products in Kyrgyzstan have soared due to the absence of government intervention in the economy. Inflation was at about 10 percent in 2020 and it hasn’t improved much since then.  

Irina, a 46-year-old Kyrgyz woman we interviewed said, “[Kyrgyz] migrants from Russia came to Kyrgyzstan and went back to Russia already. It would be hard for them to stay without income and the products are just so expensive.” 

Thirty-year-old Nazira suffers from a chronic health condition. She worked in a bread factory in Moscow before her earnings were cut in 2021 and was forced to return home. She had to sell her most valuable possessions and currently relies on financial support her brother sends home. If he leaves Russia too, Nazira does not know what she will do. She knows medical treatment would be expensive if she contracted COVID in Russia and hopes she might stay safe at home with her family. But it is not entirely clear that she will. 

The Kyrgyz government has enforced few precautions when it comes to the virus, and there are no defined COVID-19 precautions required for migrants reentering the country. Furthermore, they have a chronically underfunded medical system, with little support for medical workers and a low PPE supply. Samat, a lawyer who regularly sent money home to Kyrgyzstan from Moscow, said around 20 of his relatives had died from COVID by the time he was interviewed in late 2020.  

“There were many losses,” he replied. “The medical sector is very corrupt; they were providing only limited medicines when there were other types.” Samat also shared that his father has diabetes, and when he got sick with COVID, “The doctors came to him and said, ‘You have COVID’ and left. That’s it. No help, no further medical care.”  

Another migrant shared, “I don’t feel like the [Kyrgyz] government is helping migrants.” And it may be true. Lawmakers have insisted that the nation has not had a budget to respond to the pandemic in a comprehensive way, but they still spent millions of dollars on the recent election. For that reason, migrants’ expectations remain low. As Ulan, another Kyrgyz who worked in Moscow but left recently, put it, “The Kyrgyz embassy does not even exist to help their people.” 

Kyrgyz people cannot rely on the economy, they cannot even rely on their own government. Without enough resources to protect their health, what will happen to the families who depend on remittances? Stuck between COVID and poverty, it’s clear that many will suffer before the pandemic comes to an end. 

This piece was selected as a second-place winner of the AAA’s AnthroDay Student Unessay Competition in the high school division. Inspired by the AAA/CASCA Annual Meeting theme “transitions,” this year’s unessay competition invited participants to reflect on what transitions mean to them.  

Note: I would like to thank Erin Hofmann, associate professor of sociology at Utah State University, for her research mentorship. She conducted the original interviews cited in the article and provided guidance on the revision and publication process.  


Claire Chi

Claire Chi is a junior at State College Area High School. She currently serves on the Pennsylvania State Board of Education as the student representative. Claire was a Pennsylvania delegate to the US Senate Youth Program in 2023. 

Cite as

Chi, Claire. 2023. “Poverty: Is It More Frightening than COVID? .” Anthropology News website, July 20, 2023.