War-ravaged Afghanistan battles a new threat: coronavirus

As COVID-19 cases are reported in Afghanistan concerns are raised if country’s healthcare system can handle an outbreak.

Dr Najmussama Shefajo, an obstetrician-gynaecologist in Kabul, warns her pregnant patients to be cautious but not to over-worry [Roya Heydari/Al Jazeera]
Dr Najmussama Shefajo, an obstetrician-gynaecologist in Kabul, warns her pregnant patients to be cautious but not to over-worry [Roya Heydari/Al Jazeera]

Kabul, Afghanistan – With 22 verified cases so far, Afghanistan is still among the countries with a relatively low rate of coronavirus cases. However, the outbreak of the illness comes at a particularly trying time for the country.

The recent rise in positive cases – six new cases across three provinces in a 48-hour span – has taken some attention from a continuing election dispute that saw the top two finishers each hold an inauguration ceremony last week.

The coronavirus scare has also eclipsed the potential negotiations between the Taliban armed group and a divided Afghan leadership in media headlines.

Last month, the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban aimed at ending the 18-year-old war that has ravaged the impoverished country. As per the agreement, the Taliban and the Afghan leadership are expected to hold talks for lasting peace.

However, all this attention is also raising questions about the ability of the Kabul government to properly enforce measures for risk reduction and ensure that the nation’s 32 million people are able to obtain medical supplies and basic goods.

In an effort to raise awareness, President Ashraf Ghani was recently photographed heading a meeting where everyone, including the president, was wearing masks and gloves.

Last week, a coalition of private doctors held a meeting in Kabul to discuss how best to address the corona scare in the country, and the talk immediately turned to the shortfalls in Afghanistan’s healthcare system. 

Kabul pharmacies sell several varieties of protective masks at price points that vary from a less than a dollar to several dollars each [Roya Heydari/Al Jazeera] 

“A doctor or a nurse may be able to buy some hand sanitiser and gloves for their homes, but we have hospitals in Kabul that don’t have clean water for doctors to wash their hands,” said Najmusama Shefajo, an obstetrician-gynaecologist who attended the gathering.

Shefajo says that if doctors lack the supplies to guarantee their own hygiene, it will be impossible for patients to place their trust in them.

Overcrowding health facilities

But it is not just clean water, Afghanistan’s health system has also had to deal with overcrowding at facilities that have struggled to treat the increasing number of civilians affected by the ongoing war.

Currently, there is only one hospital in the capital that can properly diagnose patients with the coronavirus. The hospital, located in West Kabul, can only treat 150 patients at a time.

The Western province of Herat, which shares a border with Iran, has 13 coronavirus cases in the country – the country’s biggest cluster of cases. And many of those who have tested positive for the virus have returned from Iran, which has been badly hit by the pandemic. 

With reports of more than 800 deaths from the illness in Iran and another 184 positive cases in Pakistan, the Afghan people fear that with the daily flow of people and goods across the Durand Line, which divides Kabul and Islamabad and the Iranian border they are now surrounded by the illness.

Since the outbreak of the virus, there have been several reports of patients fleeing quarantine wards at hospitals in at least three different provinces.

The most recent case was earlier this week, when 38 patients, including those who tested positive for the virus, fled a hospital in Herat.

These escapes are seen as another challenge to the government’s ability to properly address the fears around the illness.

Signs about the coronavirus, about prevention and efforts being taken by businesses, are becoming an increasingly common sight in Kabul [Roya Heydari/Al Jazeera] 

A customs official told Al Jazeera that in the last week the government has prohibited the transportation of goods from the Islam Qala crossing between Afghanistan and Iran.

The Torkham crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan was also closed this week, stopping the transport of goods. Only Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan now allow for goods to be transported to and from Afghanistan.

According to the United Nations, so far in 2020, at least 64,000 Afghans have either been deported or returned voluntarily from Iran.

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At a news conference, the minister of Public Health said that all of the cases of coronavirus in the country are from people who came from another country.

We cant ban these people from entering their own country, but its very clear where the illness is coming from, said the customs official, who was not authorised to speak to the media.

Government measures

The government has started taking some measures to limit the possibility of exposure in the country.

Public and private schools have been ordered closed for at least one month, all large sporting events have been cancelled and weddings, which can attract more than 1,000 guests at a time, have also been banned.

Most importantly, the annual celebration of Newroz, the Persian New Year, which draws thousands of people to the Northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif each year, was called off. 

At the Slice Cafe in central Kabul, workers say they have started wearing masks and gloves ‘to protect ourselves and our customers’ [Roya Heydari/Al Jazeera]

These actions came after days of concern from Afghans online, who felt the government was not doing enough to warn people of the seriousness of the illness.

But Safi Shahrwand, an adviser to the Administrative Office of the President said though the government was working to address the issue, any action would require a collective effort.

“It’s not just up to the government, the people, private businesses and the media all need to play their own part in addressing this,” Shahrwand told Al Jazeera.

In recent days, as the number of cases continued to grow in the country, the prices of basic goods, including pharmaceutical goods have spiked.

At Kabul pharmacies, bottles of hand sanitiser now cost between 400-500 Afghanis ($5.27-$6.59) compared to 100 Afghanis before the crisis.

Hamidullah Habibi, the President of the Afghanistan Builders Association, a collective of local construction companies, says he and his associates can afford to pay 400 Afghanis for a bottle of hand sanitiser that prior to the outbreak of corona cost 100 Afghanis ($1.31), but the average person has been priced out.

The people working on our construction sites could barely afford the hand sanitiser when it was 100 Afghanis, now that its 400, theres no way they can afford to buy enough for their entire families.

The shutting of borders with Iran and Pakistan – Kabul’s main trading partners – has led to a rise in food prices.

In a bid to address price-gouging schemes, which has seen the price of wheat increase by 72 percent in a single 24-hour period, the Ministry of Interior has instructed police to take serious action” against any price gougers.

Meanwhile, Shefajo, the obstetrician-gynaecologist, urged people to be responsible and adopt preventive measures.

“Each person must do their part, the more people see others being responsible the more it will impact everyone else,” she said.

Source : Al Jazeera

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